Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(8):1865-1866

See related article on beta-blocker use after myocardial infarction.

What is a beta blocker?

A beta blocker is a medicine used to treat high blood pressure and heart problems. Some beta blockers are atenolol (brand name: Tenormin), metoprolol (brand name: Lopressor) and propranolol (brand name: Inderal). A beta blocker blocks the harmful effects of stress hormones on your heart. This medicine also makes your heart rate slower. Beta blockers can also be used to prevent migraine headaches in people who get them frequently.

What kinds of heart problems are treated with a beta blocker?

A beta blocker is often used to treat high blood pressure or an irregular heart beat. This medicine can also be used to treat congestive heart failure, but people with severe heart failure may not be able to take a beta blocker. A beta blocker reduces the risk of another heart attack for people who have already had one.

What are some of the possible side effects of beta blockers?

Most people who take beta blockers do well and experience no side effects. But because beta blockers slow your heart, they may make you feel tired. You also may notice that you can't exercise as hard as you used to. For example, you may get out of breath when you take a walk or climb stairs. Some men can have trouble with erections when they take beta blockers. Talk to your doctor if you have these problems after you start taking a beta blocker.

The beta blocker may make you feel a little dizzy or lightheaded. Because this might happen to you, you shouldn't drive a car or operate dangerous machines until you know if your beta blocker is going to make you feel dizzy. The dizziness usually goes away after you have been taking the medicine for a few days. If you keep feeling dizzy or lightheaded after a few days, tell your doctor.

Call your doctor right away if you have trouble breathing when you're taking a beta blocker. You should also call your doctor if you gain weight for an unknown reason. Tell your doctor if you have fluid retention (if your hands, feet or legs start swelling). Call your doctor right away if you have chest pain or a very slow heart beat (less than 50 heartbeats per minute).

Can I take a beta blocker if I have diabetes?

Yes, you can take a beta blocker if you have diabetes. But a beta blocker may hide some of the warning signs of low blood sugar. For example, when you take a beta blocker, your heart rate may not increase in response to a low blood sugar level. You will need to check your blood sugar levels carefully after you start taking a beta blocker. If you have low blood sugar often, your doctor may want to change the dosages of your diabetes medicines.

Can I take a beta blocker if I have asthma or chronic lung disease?

Beta blockers are generally not used in people with asthma. A beta blocker can cause asthma attacks.

Sometimes people with a chronic lung disease such as emphysema or bronchitis can take beta blockers. If you have lung disease and are taking a beta blocker, call your doctor right away if you start having breathing problems.

What is the best way to take beta blockers?

You should take your beta blocker exactly as your doctor prescribes it. Beta blockers are usually taken once or twice a day. Try to take the medicine at the same time every day. Do not stop taking your beta blocker without talking to your doctor first.

If you forget to take a dose and it has been a few hours or less since you missed the dose, take your beta blocker as soon as you remember. But if it has been four to six hours or longer since you missed the dose, don't take the dose you missed. Instead, wait and take the next regular dose. Never take a double dose to catch up.

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