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“Do Not Use This Product” Warnings on Decongestants: Which are Safe for A-Fib Patients

by Steve Ryan
First published Dec. 2017. Last updated: March 14, 2019

It’s cough and cold season, and millions of cold sufferers are reaching for an over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant capsule or nasal spray to clear a stuffy nose.

As an A-Fib patient, did you notice these over-the-counter decongestants often contain a warning such as:

“Do not use this product if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, diabetes, or difficulty in urination due to enlargement of the prostate gland, unless directed by a doctor.”

What does this warning mean for patients with Atrial Fibrillation?

Decongestants, Heart Disease and A-Fib

When you have a stuffed up nose from a cold or allergies, a decongestant can cut down on the fluid in the lining of your nose. That relieves swollen nasal passages and congestion. (In general, an antihistamine doesn’t help with this symptom.)

The Problem: When taking a decongestant, heart rate and blood pressure go up, the heart beats stronger, blood vessels constrict in nasal passages reducing fluid build-up. In general that’s okay for most patients.

But not for patients with high blood pressure, heart disease or, specifically, Atrial Fibrillation. Decongestants cause the blood vessels to shrink and blood pressure to rise. Perfect conditions that can trigger or induce an episode of their A-Fib.

Another concern for A-Fib patients is that some over-the-counter (OTC) medications can interact with the anti-arrhythmic medication they’re taking.

Check your Cold Medicine: The main active ingredient in many decongestants is pseudoephedrine, a stimulant. It is well known for shrinking swollen nasal mucous membranes.

To find out if your cold medicine contains a decongestant, start by reading the label. You can lookup the ingredients of any OTC medication at Drugs.com. Just search by product name or active ingredient.

In addition, you can consult your pharmacist who can check the label of a medicine and let you know if it’s safe for someone with atrial fibrillation and/or high blood pressure.

Drugs.com makes it easy to check the ingredients of any OTC medication, just search by product name or active ingredient.

OTC Decongestants to Avoid: Some OTC decongestants tablets, capsules and nasal sprays to avoid if you have atrial fibrillation include:

• AccuHist DM® (containing Brompheniramine, Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin, Pseudoephedrine)
• Advil Allergy Sinus® (containing Chlorpheniramine, Ibuprofen, Pseudoephedrine)
• Advil Cold and Sinus® (containing Ibuprofen, Pseudoephedrine)
• Sudafed (pseudoephedrine)
• Afrin and other decongestant nasal sprays and pumps (oxymetazoline)

Phenylephrine: a Safe Substitute? Maybe. A substitute for pseudoephedrine is phenylephrine. In general, phenylephrine is milder than pseudoephedrine but also less effective in treating nasal congestion. As with other decongestants, it causes the constriction of blood vessels and increases blood pressure.

There is anecdotal evidence that products with the substitute phenylephrine might be less of a trigger for A-Fib than products with pseudoephedrine. Products with phenylephrine:

Sudafed PE Congestion tablets
Dimetapp Nasal Decongestant capsules
Mucinex Sinus-Max Pressure and Pain caplets (Sue Greene writes that she has used Guaifenesin (Mucinex) for years which has never put her into A-Fib, 2/15/19. Lompocsue(at)yahoo.com.)

Decongestant-Free Products: These tablets, capsules and nasal sprays are decongestant-free and safe for patients with Atrial Fibrillation (They are marketed for those with High Blood Pressure):

Coricidin HBP line of products (Chlorpheniramine)
DayQuil HBP Cold & Flu (dextromethorphan hydrobromide)
NyQuil HBP Cold & Flu (dextromethorphan hydrobromide)
• non-medicated inhalers such as Vicks VapoInhalers (Levmetamfetamine)

What About Antihistamines?

Antihistamines reduce the effects of histamine in the body which can produce sneezing, runny nose, etc. Though they can lessen your symptoms, some can aggravate a heart condition, or be dangerous when mixed with blood pressure drugs and certain heart medicines.

Antihistamines can be dangerous when mixed with blood pressure drugs and certain heart medicines.

Heart-safe Antihistamines: Compared to decongestants, antihistamines are often better tolerated by people with A-Fib. Some heart-safe antihistamines that can help with a stuffy nose from a cold include:

Claritin tablets (loratadine)
Zyrtec tablets (cetirizine)
Allegra tablets (fexofenadine)
• Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine)

Non-Drug Alternatives for Cold Relief

If you want to avoid medications altogether, you can try a variety of things to clear your head.

Breathe Right nasal strips may help you breathe better at night. Use saline nasal spray (like Ocean or Basic Care) to help flush your sinuses, relieve nasal congestion and curb inflammation of mucous membranes.

A steamy shower or a hot towel wrapped around the face can also relieve congestion. Drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot beverages (like chicken soup), keeps mucus moist and flowing.

Recommendations for A-Fib Patients

Antihistamines and decongestants can give much-needed relief for a runny or congested nose. But A-Fib patients should pay attention to the warnings for heart patients. Here’s some products and procedures to consider:

Decongestant-free: Look for decongestant-free products (e.g. Coricidin HBP, DayQuil HBP Cold & Flu, NyQuil HBP Cold & Flu and Vicks VapoInhalers).

One possible exception are those decongestant products with the active ingredient phenylephrine (e.g. Sudafed PE, Dimetapp and Mucinex Sinus).

Heart-safe antihistamines: You can try one of the heart-safe antihistamines (e.g. Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra).

Drug-free alternatives: Try drug-free substitutes (e.g. Breath Right nasal strips, saline nasal spray and a steamy shower).

The best advice for you and your A-Fib: Always consult your cardiologist or EP. Ask what’s the best option for your stuffy nose or allergies. And ask about interactions with your other heart medications (especially if you have high blood pressure).

References for this article
• Don’t let decongestants squeeze your heart. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. March, 2014. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/dont-let-decongestants-squeeze-your-heart

• Atrial fibrillation: Frequently asked questions. University of Iowa Health Care. Last reviewed: December 2015. https://uihc.org/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation-frequently-asked-questions

• Wieneke, H. Induction of Atrial Fibrillation by Topical Use of Nasal Decongestants. Mayo Clinic Proceedings , July 2016, Volume 91, Issue 7, Page 977. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.04.011

• Terrie, YC. Decongestants and Hypertension: Making Wise Choices When Selecting OTC Medications. Pharmacy Times, December 20, 2017. https://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/issue/2017/december2017/decongestants-and-hypertension-making-wise-choices-when-selecting-otc-medications

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