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Fact Checked

What are the Most Common Side Effects of Atorvastatin?

With the recent focus on ‘eating right’ to promote a healthy lifestyle, more people are pausing to read the nutrition label on packaged food and thinking twice before they reach for that bag of potato chips in the snack aisle. This does not only apply to packaged snacks. Even certain fruits and vegetables are categorized into those that are good for maintaining a certain healthy lifestyle. One focus of attention has been on balancing the amount of ‘good fat’ and ‘bad fat’ in our diet. Everyone has heard about the different types of fat in our food like saturated fat, unsaturated fat, ‘trans’ fat and more. How do these actually affect our health? What is all the hype about good fat and bad fat? And what kind of foods should we be eating to get the balance right? 

One of the main concerns for thinking about this is because the amount and types of fat that we ingest can directly affect the cholesterol levels in our body. Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance that cells use to build certain hormones and substances important for normal functioning of the body, like vitamin D.  Our liver can naturally make the cholesterol that cells need. But diet also largely contributes to cholesterol levels in the body. Animal-derived food products like meat and dairy products that are rich in fat are packed with cholesterol, and this contributes to the total amount of cholesterol we have in our body. The type of fat contained in these animal-food products are also saturated fat and trans-fat, meaning that it can induce the liver to make more cholesterol than normal, tipping the balance from a healthy cholesterol level to an unhealthy higher one. 

What happens if you have high cholesterol?

High cholesterol levels in the blood can lead to serious health problems. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), high cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for Coronary Heart Disease, heart attack and stroke. When cholesterol levels circulating the blood are high, they can combine with other substances in the blood to form thick deposits that line the arteries. This causes narrowing of the arteries and restricts the ability of blood to flow freely, causing a condition called atherosclerosis. A blood clot that arises due to atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack or stroke. The AHA also says that cholesterol is a controllable risk factor for heart disease, meaning that high cholesterol is not a permanent condition. Changing certain factors like fat intake in our diet can certainly help maintain a healthy cholesterol level. Therefore, it is important to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly to make sure that you are not at high risk of more serious health complications due to high cholesterol levels. 

High cholesterol does not only affect adults. Children can be at risk for high cholesterol too due to certain genetic factors that causes them to inherit it. Recent research has also suggested that atherosclerosis can start early in life, as early as in childhood, and can progressively build up into adulthood. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant about maintaining normal cholesterol levels early on. The AHA recommends checking cholesterol starting at age 20 and continuing to check it every four to six years. 

If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, there are several prescription drugs on the market that are very effective in bringing levels down to a normal level. These drugs mostly belong to the Statin family. The most commonly prescribed statin for high cholesterol levels is atorvastatin- also marketed as the brand, Lipitor, by Pfizer. 

How does atorvastatin work?

The statin drugs are the first line treatment for treatment of high cholesterol and prevention of heart disease due to high cholesterol. What is Atorvastatin? Atorvastatin, like the other statins, lowers the natural production of cholesterol in the liver by inhibiting an enzyme known as HMG-CoA-Reductase that is crucial for cholesterol synthesis from certain precursor molecules. Over the years, this drug has been found to be extremely effective in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering lipid content in patients. It is also prescribed to patients that are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to the presence of other diseases like Type II Diabetes. 

How to take atorvastatin

Atorvastatin should be taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Atorvastatin can be taken by adults and children above the age of 10. It is usually prescribed to be taken once a day and can be taken with or without food. The dosage prescribed depends on the indication that it is being taken for. Usual doses for any condition start at 10mg daily. The different indications that atorvastatin is prescribed for generally include prevention of cardiovascular disease, homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, dyslipidemia, hypertriglyceridemia, and kidney disease. 

Side effects of atorvastatin

It can take up two weeks for cholesterol blood levels to change after you start taking atorvastatin. You should not stop taking the medication even if you do not feel any different after taking it. Regular monitoring of blood cholesterol levels should be done while on this medication to ensure that medication is working properly for you. Your doctor may decide to adjust your daily dosage depending on how your body responds to the medication. 

Like with any medication, atorvastatin is also associated with side effects. The most commonly reported side effects reported by patients who take this drug include:

  • Arthralgia (joint pain)
  • Hemorrhagic stroke
  • Diarrhea
  • Nasopharyngitis 

Other reported side effects include:

  • Urinary Tract infection
  • Insomnia
  • Limb pain
  • Muscle spasm
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Myalgia (muscle pain)
  • Nausea

Sometimes, more serious, but rare, side effects can occur after taking atorvastatin. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to contact your doctor immediately. These include:

  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Fever
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle cramps or pain 
  • Skin rash
  • Puffiness or swelling of eyelids or in other areas of the face like lips, eyes, face or tongue
  • Tightness in chest
  • Unusual weakness or fatigue 
  • Wheezing

Most patients have reported the following side effects while their body adjusts to taking atorvastatin. These side effects do not usually need immediate medical attention, but should be reported to your doctor if you experience any of them. Your doctor can help you find ways to reduce these side effects.  These include:

  • Headache
  • Hoarse voice
  • Lower back or side pain
  • Pain around eyes or cheekbones
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Runny or stuffy nose 

As with any new drug, a serious allergic reaction is possible when taking atorvastatin. If you take atorvastatin for the first time and develop signs of an allergic reaction like hives, difficulty breathing, swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat, get emergency medical help immediately. 

Although extremely rare, atorvastatin can also cause the skeletal muscle tissue to break down and this can lead to kidney failure. If you develop sudden muscle tenderness, pain or weakness after taking this drug, contact your doctor immediately. 

Taking atorvastatin with other drugs can also increase the incidence of unwanted side effects, so be sure to report any other drugs you may be taking to your doctor. Certain drugs like birth control pills, antibiotics or anti-fungal medication, other heart medications, other cholesterol-reducing drugs, drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS, and even certain over-the-counter drugs including vitamins and minerals can all interfere with how your body responds to atorvastatin. 

Who should not take atorvastatin

Pregnant women and women that are actively breastfeeding should not take atorvastatin. This drug can cause birth defects and could harm a baby if it is ingested through breast milk. If you become pregnant while taking this drug, stop taking it and inform your doctor immediately. You should also discuss whether to take atorvastatin with your doctor if you have liver disease. 

Combine atorvastatin with Lifestyle Changes

When taking atorvastatin, it is also important to avoid eating foods that are high in cholesterol or fat. Taking a medication like atorvastatin to reduce cholesterol levels will not be as effective if you have a regular intake of high-fat foods that can bring your cholesterol levels back to an unhealthy level. It is also important to combine this with other lifestyle factors like exercise and weight control. You can discuss what is personally best for reducing cholesterol levels with your doctor. 

How to buy atorvastatin

If you are prescribed atorvastatin, you can take your prescription with you to be filled at any pharmacy. You can find savings for atorvastatin with a convenient drug coupon that can be printed out, available from USA Rx. Additionally, if you regularly take more than one prescription drug, you can sign up for a free prescription discount card available through USA Rx that can help you save more on atorvastatin and other FDA-approved prescription drugs. Signing up for the card takes just a few minutes and can be presented at most pharmacies across the country. 

Published April 16th, 2020 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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