Medication for the long-term treatment of coronary artery disease

Photo of a woman taking a tablet

Most people with coronary artery disease (CAD) choose treatment with medication. The various drugs aim to reduce the risk of complications. They are also intended to relieve the symptoms well enough for people to live as normal a life as possible.

In order to prevent the development of related medical conditions, almost all people who have coronary artery disease (CAD) are advised to take two types of medication: antiplatelets to prevent blood clots, and to protect the blood vessels.

Good-quality studies have proven that these medications can lower the risk of complications such as heart attacks or strokes. The important thing is to continue to take your medication and to take it regularly – its protective effect lasts only as long as it’s taken. Other medications might also be needed to relieve symptoms of angina or certain complications like heart failure or high blood pressure.

How do antiplatelets work?

Antiplatelets make sure that the blood platelets do not clump so quickly to form blood clots. Regularly taking antiplatelets reduces the risk of things such as or stroke in people with CAD, and increases life expectancy. Antiplatelets are also referred to as platelet function inhibitors or platelet aggregation inhibitors.

Two antiplatelet drugs are used for the long-term treatment of CAD: acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) and clopidogrel.

  • ASA is the drug found in painkillers like Aspirin. Low-dose ASA has been used in the prevention of heart disease for many decades. People with CAD typically take one 100 mg ASA tablet per day.
  • Clopidogrel is mostly used by people who don't tolerate ASA well or can't take it for other reasons. One 75 mg tablet of clopidogrel is taken per day.

Research on ASA and clopidogrel

ASA is a well-studied drug: Expressed in numbers, studies that lasted five years came to the following conclusion: If 100 people with CAD take ASA permanently, a or stroke will be prevented in an average of 5 to 10 of them. Just how much someone benefits from this medication will very much depend on their personal risk.

A large study compared ASA and clopidogrel directly. Both medications were found to offer equally good protection.

Side effects

People may start bleeding more easily because antiplatelets slow down blood clotting. That means people can bruise more easily. Bruising and other minor bleeding events like nosebleeds are no cause for alarm. Dark red or black stool and vomit with blood in it, on the other hand, may be signs of bleeding in the stomach and need medical attention.

If 100 people with CAD take ASA over a period of five years, it leads to gastric bleeding that requires treatment in about 2 to 3 of them. But most of these cases can be easily treated and do not have any long-term effects. Stomach ulcers are another possible side effect of antiplatelets.

It can make sense for people who have had gastrointestinal bleeding or a stomach to also take medication to protect their stomach. These drugs include omeprazole and pantoprazole (known as proton-pump inhibitors). They inhibit stomach acid production and protect the stomach's mucous lining. That prevents stomach ulcers and gastric bleeding.

How do statins work?

Statins lower cholesterol levels and protect the blood vessel walls. Large studies show that they increase the life expectancy of people with CAD and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The following have been approved for use in Germany: atorvastatin, fluvastatin, lovastatin, pravastatin and simvastatin. So if someone does not tolerate a particular statin, they can switch to a different statin.

Research on statins

Research on the use of for people known to have CAD has found the following: If people with CAD take over a period of five years, medical conditions like heart attacks, strokes and other forms of blood vessel blockages will be prevented in an average of about 5 out of 100 of them. The positive effect may be bigger or smaller, depending on individual risk.

If have to be lowered more, can also be combined with another medication such as ezetimibe.

Side effects

Statins are usually well tolerated. A few studies suggest that these drugs can cause muscle pain in a small group of people. But muscle problems can be caused by many other things, too. So it doesn't make sense to stop treatment at the first sign of a possible side effect. It’s best to talk to your doctor about any intolerances you might have.

Rhabdomyolysis is an extremely rare but serious side effect where the muscle tissue in certain muscles gradually breaks down. This causes paralysis, and the breakdown products that are released from the muscles can severely damage the kidneys. In studies, this side effect occurred in 1 out of 10,000 people who had long-term treatment with . Its signs include quickly tiring or cramping muscles and reddish or dark urine. It's important to seek medical advice if you have these symptoms. No damage is to be expected if you stop taking the statin in good time.

How are angina symptoms treated?

If exertion with CAD causes chest tightness (angina), other medications might be taken to relieve the symptoms. A difference is made between:

  • Preventive medication (in particular beta blockers)
  • Medication to treat acute angina attacks (fast-acting nitrates)

Preventive medication is taken over the long term to lower the risk of angina symptoms. Beta blockers are mainly used here. They slow down the heart rate (pulse) and lower blood pressure, taking strain off the heart. Calcium channel blockers are another option for people who don’t tolerate beta blockers, can’t take them or need another medication. They widen your blood vessels, and some also slow your heart rate. That lowers blood pressure and takes the strain off the heart.

Acute symptoms can be relieved using fast-acting nitrates. They quickly widen the blood vessels, supplying more blood to the heart. That relieves the tightness and pain in the chest. There are different kinds of nitrates, such as sprays ("nitro spray") and capsules ("nitro capsules"). Nitrates start working after 2 to 5 minutes, and last for up to half an hour.

People who have angina symptoms often carry nitrate medication with them to be taken as needed.

Fast-acting nitrates can also be used as a preventive measure, like just before activities involving exertion such as doing sports, mowing the lawn or going for a walk in very cold weather, that would otherwise cause symptoms.

Side effects

People can feel worn-out and fatigued if beta blockers lower the heart rate or blood pressure too far. But this can often be avoided by adjusting the dose of the medication. Other possible side effects of beta blockers include reduced sexual desire and erection problems. But fewer than 1 out of 100 people have these problems as a result of taking this medication. Beta blockers are usually well-tolerated.

The possible side effects of channel blockers include headache, drowsiness, hot flashes, constipation and water retention in the legs.

Nitrates can cause short-term headaches and reddening of the face. They can also cause blood pressure to drop. That is why doctors recommend sitting down before taking nitrates.

Men who take potency medicines such as sildenafil (Viagra) should talk to their doctor. It is important that there’s a big enough time gap between taking those kinds of medications and nitrates to avoid too big a drop in blood pressure.

What other factors are important in treatment?

Other or additional medications might be an option for people who have other conditions as well as CAD, such as high blood pressure, heart failure or . Treatment with various antiplatelets is usual for a while if a stent has been fitted.

Tolerance and possible interactions with other medications are also important factors when selecting the right treatment.

What can help to manage long-term medication?

People who have CAD usually take several different medications over a long period of time. It can be hard to keep track of everything. Various things can help make it easier to take the medication, though. The following have proven especially useful:

  • Keeping your medicine schedule as simple as possible.
  • Using medicine dispensers with small compartments for each day, making it easy to see whether a tablet has been forgotten.
  • Seeing your doctor regularly so that questions about the treatment can be addressed.

Many people are afraid of taking medication regularly for a long period of time, for instance because they might worry about the build-up of medication in their body over time. But these worries are unfounded. Our bodies continuously break down medications and get rid of them without any trace with the help of various mechanisms. All of the medications described here have also been carefully tested in studies.

How can the risk of side effects be lowered?

All medications can have side effects. Yet it’s often possible to avoid them by adjusting the dose or by choosing a different medication in the same group of drugs. The side effects often go away after a while too, once the body has got used to the medication. It is best to talk to your doctor if you don’t tolerate a medication.

The risk of side effects may increase when several medications are taken together, because they may interact. It is therefore important to tell your doctor what medication you are already taking, including any herbal or other over-the-counter medication. It can help to keep a list of medication. People with statutory health insurance in Germany who take three or more prescription medications are entitled to request a "standardized medication schedule." This schedule is normally put together by your family doctor and should be kept up to date by all treating practices and pharmacies.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on February 18, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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