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Beta-blockers

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read
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Beta-blockers are a type of prescription medication that is used to reduce the activity of the heart. Primarily they come as tablets or capsules for most conditions, but they are also available as eye drops and liquid preparations, depending on their intended use.

There are several types of beta-blocker, including propranolol, atenolol, labetalol, sotalol and bisoprolol, with each type having one or more brand names.

What do they treat?

Beta-blockers can be used for several different conditions but are mainly used to treat heart conditions, such as angina, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure. Other conditions they can be used for include preventing migraines, anxiety, an overactive thyroid gland, benign tremors and glaucoma.

They are only available via prescription, so you need to have a consultation with a doctor to ensure suitability. There are several types of beta-blocker, and each one has its own characteristics and benefits. The type prescribed for you will depend on your health condition and any other medications you take or other conditions you have.

How do they work?

Beta-blockers may work by slowing the heart rate. They do this by blocking the action of hormones like adrenaline, which allows the main pumping chamber of the heart to fill more completely.

Some of these medicines may also help open or widen blood vessels in the body. This makes them especially useful in some people with certain forms of heart failure who may also have high blood pressure, or in migraines where they get to work on blood vessels leading to the brain.

Similarly in glaucoma, they work on the blood vessels surrounding the eye, reducing the pressure in the eye.

Should anyone avoid taking them?

Beta-blockers should be avoided in people with asthma, uncontrolled heart failure, low blood pressure, a very low pulse rate or certain problems with heart rhythms.

Beta-blockers, including eye drops, can interact with other medicines, altering their effect, so it’s always best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before starting a new medication.

Are there any side effects?

Most people taking beta-blockers have either no or very mild side effects that become less troublesome with time but contact your doctor if you're having symptoms that bother you or last more than a few days.

Common side effects include feeling tired, dizzy or lightheaded, having cold fingers and toes, erection problems and having difficulty sleeping or nightmares. Feeling out of breath is another possibility – if this occurs, stop taking your medication and seek medical advice.

How long do I need to take beta blockers for?

This depends on why you need to take them. Some people only need to take them for a short time – such as when they’re used to treat acute anxiety – but you may need to be on them for life, for example following a heart attack.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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