Consider statins a lifelong commitment

You may think that once your cholesterol goes down, you can stop taking medication. But if your cholesterol levels have decreased after you take a statin, you'll likely need to stay on it indefinitely. If you stop taking it, your cholesterol levels will probably go back up.

The exception may be if you make significant changes to your diet or lose a lot of weight. Substantial lifestyle changes may help you lower your cholesterol without continuing to take the medication, but don't make any changes to your medications without talking to your doctor first.

The side effects of statins

Although statins are well-tolerated by most people, they do have side effects, some of which may go away as your body adjusts to the medication.

Common, less serious side effects

  • Muscle and joint aches (most common)
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Rare but potentially serious side effects

  • Muscle problems. Statins may cause muscle pain and tenderness, particularly if you're taking a high dosage. In severe cases, muscle cells can break down (rhabdomyolysis) and release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream. Myoglobin can damage your kidneys.
  • Liver damage. Occasionally, statin use causes an increase in liver enzymes. If the increase is only mild, you can continue to take the drug. Contact your doctor immediately if you have unusual fatigue or weakness, loss of appetite, pain in your upper abdomen, dark-colored urine, or yellowing of your skin or eyes.
  • Increased blood sugar or type 2 diabetes. It's possible your blood sugar (blood glucose) level may increase when you take a statin, which may lead to developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Cognitive problems. Some people have experienced memory loss and confusion after using statins. However, scientific studies have failed to prove that statins actually cause cognitive problems.

It's important to consider the effects of statins on other organs in your body, especially if you have health problems such as liver or kidney disease. Also, check whether statins interact with any other prescription or over-the-counter drugs or supplements you take.

Keep in mind that when you begin to take a statin, you'll most likely be on it for the rest of your life. Side effects are often minor, but if you experience them, you may want to talk to your doctor about decreasing your dose or trying a different statin. Don't stop taking a statin without talking to your doctor first.

What other benefits do statins have?

Statins may have benefits other than just lowering your cholesterol. One promising benefit of statins appears to be their anti-inflammatory properties, which help stabilize the lining of blood vessels. This has potentially far-reaching effects, from the brain and heart to blood vessels and organs throughout the body.

In the heart, stabilizing the blood vessel linings would make plaques less likely to rupture, thereby reducing the chance of a heart attack. Statins also help relax blood vessels, lowering blood pressure.

Weighing the risks and benefits of statins

When thinking about whether you should take statins for high cholesterol, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
  • Am I willing and able to make lifestyle changes to improve my health?
  • Am I concerned about taking a pill every day, perhaps for the rest of my life?
  • Am I concerned about statins' side effects or interactions with other drugs?

It's important to take into account not only your medical reasons for a decision, but also your personal values and concerns. Talk to your doctor about your total risk of cardiovascular disease and discuss how your lifestyle and preferences play a role in your decision about taking medication for high cholesterol.

April 08, 2015 See more In-depth