Using Nitroglycerin for Sudden Chest Pain
What is nitroglycerin?
Nitroglycerin is a vasodilator, a medicine that opens blood vessels to improve blood flow. It is used to treat angina, a type of chest pain that happens when there is not enough blood flowing to the heart. To improve blood flow to the heart, nitroglycerin opens up (dilates) the arteries in the heart (coronary arteries), which improves symptoms and reduces how hard the heart has to work.
Nitroglycerin comes in quick-acting forms and long-acting forms.
Quick-acting forms of nitroglycerin are used to relieve sudden chest pain or used just before activities that typically cause chest pain. The quick-acting forms include tablets or oral sprays. The tablets are placed under the tongue (sublingual) or between the cheek and gum (buccal). The spray is used on or under the tongue. This topic covers these quick-acting forms of nitroglycerin.
Long-acting forms of nitroglycerin are used to prevent chest pain from happening. They are not used to stop sudden chest pain. These long-acting forms include pills, tablets, skin ointment, and skin patches. This topic does not cover these long-acting forms of nitroglycerin.
Your doctor will prescribe the right amount for you. Do not use another person's nitroglycerin.
When do I use quick-acting nitroglycerin?
Your doctor will advise you when to use your nitroglycerin. In general, quick-acting nitroglycerin is used:
- To relieve sudden angina.
- Before stressful activities that can cause angina, such as walking uphill or having sexual intercourse.
How do I use quick-acting nitroglycerin?
- Sit or lie down to take your nitroglycerin. If you are driving, pull over and park the car. Taking nitroglycerin can lower your blood pressure, which could cause you to pass out if you are standing up.
- For sudden episodes of angina, use nitroglycerin in a tablet or
liquid spray form.
- Place the under-the-tongue (sublingual) tablet under your tongue. Leave it there until it dissolves. If you accidentally swallow the tablet, take another. The medicine won't work if it is swallowed.
- Place the between-cheek-and-gum (buccal) tablet between your cheek and gum. Leave it there until it dissolves. If you accidentally swallow the tablet, take another. The medicine won't work if it is swallowed.
- Use the spray under your tongue or on top of your tongue. Push the spray canister button once. Close your mouth right away.
- Take one tablet or spray dose. If after 5 minutes the chest pain is not better or gets worse, call 911 or other emergency services immediately.
- After calling 911, continue to stay on the phone with the emergency operator. He or she will give you further instructions.
- Regardless of what happens, you should let your doctor know that you had an episode of angina. If this is unusual for you, your angina episodes are occurring more frequently or lasting longer, or you need more medicine to control them, tell your doctor. Report any change in your chest pain (unstable angina) to your doctor.
Are there side effects or interactions with other drugs that I should be aware of?
Normal, temporary side effects of nitroglycerin include a warm or flushed feeling, headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness. You may also feel a burning sensation under your tongue.
Do not take the erection-enhancing medicine sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis) if you are taking nitroglycerin. Combining nitroglycerin with any of these medicines can cause a life-threatening drop in blood pressure. If you develop chest pain and have taken one of these erection-enhancing medicines, be sure to tell your doctor so that you are not given nitroglycerin or another nitrate medicine.
Do not take the pulmonary hypertension medicine sildenafil (Revatio) if you are taking nitroglycerin or another nitrate medicine.
How should I store nitroglycerin?
Store nitroglycerin pills in a dark-colored (such as brown), airtight, glass container that you cannot see through. Keep the container tightly closed. Keep nitroglycerin pills and liquid spray away from heat or moisture.
Can nitroglycerin get old and lose potency?
Nitroglycerin can get old. And when it is old, it may not work. If your nitroglycerin supply is past its expiration date, get a new prescription as soon as possible. Keep your nitroglycerin in the container it came in and tightly closed. Do not open your sublingual nitroglycerin until you need a dose. Replace your tablets every 3 to 6 months. A nitroglycerin spray may last up to 2 years before it expires.
You may get a headache when you use nitroglycerin. Or you may feel burning or tingling under your tongue with nitroglycerin that is used under the tongue. But if you don't have a headache or feel burning or tingling under your tongue, it does not mean the medicine is not working.
Other Works Consulted
- Antman EM, et al. (2007). 2007 focused update of the ACC/AHA 2004 guidelines for the management of patients with ST-elevation myocardial infarction: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation, 117(2): 296–329. Originally published online December 10, 2007 (doi:10.1161/circulationaha.107.188209).
|Author||Robin Parks, MS|
|Editor||Kathleen M. Ariss, MS|
|Associate Editor||Pat Truman, MATC|
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Stephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology|
|Last Updated||April 15, 2009|
Last Updated: April 15, 2009