Beta-blockers affect the way your heart works by slowing it down and causing it to beat with less force.
They can also help to reduce your blood pressure.
Beta-blockers are only available on prescription from a doctor. The type of beta-blocker you’re prescribed will depend on why you need them. They come as:
- tablets or capsules
- syrup or solution
- eye drops (for glaucoma)
The effects of some beta-blockers don’t last very long. So if you need beta-blocker tablets to help control a long-term condition, you may need to take them once or twice a day.
Beta-blockers may be prescribed in combination with other drugs such as nitrates.
Don’t stop taking your beta-blocker medicine suddenly as this may make your symptoms worse. If you need to stop taking them, your doctor will tell you how to reduce your dose gradually.
Always ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
Beta-blockers may affect other parts of your body, such as your lungs and muscles.
Your doctor may not prescribe you a beta-blocker, or will need to monitor you closely, if you have:
- asthma or other breathing problems
- severe heart failure
- severe narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to your arms and legs (peripheral arterial disease)
- low blood pressure
- slow heart rate
- diabetes – beta-blockers can hide the symptoms of low blood sugar levels
Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information.
Side-effects are the unwanted effects of taking a medicine. If you have side-effects from your beta-blocker medicine, it’s important to talk to your doctor before you stop taking it.
This section doesn’t include every possible side-effect of beta-blockers. Please read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine for more details. Some common side-effects are:
- cold hands and feet
- sleep disturbance (nightmares)
- sexual problems (erectile dysfunction)
Other side-effects can include:
- visual disturbances
- skin rashes
- dry eyes
Check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any other medicines at the same time as a beta-blocker.
All medicines have a generic name. Many medicines also have one or more brand name. Generic names are in lower case, whereas brand names start with a capital letter. The main types of beta-blocker are shown in the table.
Examples of common brand names
acebutolol Sectral atenolol Kalten bisoprolol Cardicor carvedilol Eucardic celiprolol Celectol esmolol Brevibloc labetalol Trandate metoprolol Betaloc nadolol Corgard nebivolol Nebilet oxyprenolol Trasicor pindolol Visken propranolol Inderal-LA sotalol Beta-Cardone timolol Betim
Can I drink alcohol when taking beta-blockers?
If you’ve been prescribed beta-blockers, you should always check with your GP whether it’s safe for you to drink alcohol and how much.
Beta-blockers slow down your heart rate and cause it to beat with less force. As a result, your blood pressure is kept low. If you drink while you’re taking beta-blockers your blood pressure can drop even further. This may make you feel dizzy and could even cause you to faint. Therefore it's important to be careful about how much alcohol you're drinking if you're taking beta-blockers.
Can you tell me more about the side-effects of beta-blockers?
Like all medicines, beta-blockers can cause side-effects. Many of these are mild and will go away after a few weeks. If you have side-effects, it’s important to talk to your doctor who prescribed your medicine rather than stopping taking it. He or she may need to change the dosage or your medicine.
Side-effects are the unwanted effects of taking a medicine. When you read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine, you will see a list of potential side-effects. There is no way of knowing before you take your medicine whether you will have side-effects from it, and everyone is affected differently. Some of the most common side-effects for beta-blockers are listed below.
- Slow heart rate. One of the ways in which beta-blockers work is to slow down your heart rate. If you’re worried that your heart rate is too slow, see your doctor. A slow heart rate in itself may not matter, as long as you feel well with it.
- Cold hands and feet. Beta-blockers can cause this side-effect because they cause the blood vessels around your body to narrow.
- Breathing difficulties. Beta-blockers can sometimes cause bronchospasm. This is when your airways in your lungs suddenly become narrow, causing you to have problems breathing. You should seek urgent medical attention if you have trouble breathing.
- Tiredness. Sometimes beta-blockers can make you feel tired. However, this may only occur when you first start taking beta-blockers or if your dose is increased.
- Some beta-blockers can cause sleeping problems and nightmares.
We have not listed every possible side-effect of beta blockers here. Please read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine for more information.
Why are beta-blockers not a preferred treatment for high blood pressure?
Beta-blockers are not used as the first choice to treat high blood pressure (hypertension). This is because there are other medicines that work better at reducing high blood pressure.
Medicines such as diuretics, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and calcium-channel blockers are better than beta-blockers at treating high blood pressure. They may also reduce your risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
Your doctor will only suggest beta-blockers as a treatment for your high blood pressure if:
- you’re under 55
- you can’t tolerate other types of blood pressure medication
- you’re a woman trying to get pregnant
You may also be prescribed beta-blockers if you have had a heart attack or if you have angina. Beta-blockers may reduce your risk of having another heart attack and developing further attacks of angina. If you’re prescribed a beta-blocker, you may be given it in combination with a calcium-channel blocker.
Why should beta-blockers be stopped gradually?
Beta-blockers affect the way your heart works by slowing it down and causing it to beat with less force. Your body gets used to this, so it can be harmful if you stop taking beta-blockers suddenly. Always ask your doctor or pharmacist for information and advice before you stop taking any regular medicines.
Beta-blockers work by slowing down your heart rate so that it beats less often. Your body becomes used to these effects, so if you stop taking beta-blockers suddenly, it can be harmful. Your blood pressure may go up suddenly and you may get irregular heart rhythms. If you take beta-blockers to treat angina (chest pain), stopping your medicine abruptly could make your chest pain worse.
If you want to stop taking your beta-blockers, for example, because they cause unpleasant side-effects, talk to your doctor for advice. He or she may be able to give you a different medicine to try while you slowly stop the beta-blocker. You will probably need to take smaller doses of your beta-blocker over a few weeks until you stop completely.
- British Heart Foundation
- Beta-blockers. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 26 June 2013
- Joint Formulary Committee. British National Formulary (online) London: BMJ group and Pharmaceutical Press. www.medicinescomplete.com, accessed July 2013 (online version)
- Beta-blockers – blood pressure medication. Blood Pressure UK. www.bloodpressureuk.org, published May 2009
- Simon C, Everitt H, van Dorp F. Oxford handbook of general practice. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010:256
- Gorre F, Vandekerckhove H. Beta-blockers: focus on mechanism of action. Acta Cardiol 2010; 65(5):565–70. doi:10.2143/AC.65.5.2056244
- Anatomy and function of the normal lung. American Thoracic Society. www.thoracic.org, accessed 8 July 2013
- Hypertension: clinical management of primary hypertension in adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2011. www.nice.org.uk
- British Heart Foundation
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Reviewed by Kuljeet Battoo, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2013.
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