January 24, 2024

Take Your Cholesterol Meds: Stopping Statins Can Cause Dangerous Side Effects

Stopping this critical medication on your own increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and more

close up of bottle of pills spilling onto table

If you have high cholesterol or you were treated in the hospital for a heart attack, your doctor likely prescribed a cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Statins go by brand names like Lipitor®, Mevacor®, Crestor® and more. They’re a key part of treatment that will help keep your heart healthy.

Statins are some of the most common prescription medications in the United States. But all too often, people stop taking statins on their own, and the side effects can be life-threatening.

Cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD, sees this in her practice. “It happens frequently. People take themselves off statins and don’t tell their healthcare team. But discontinuing these medications without a healthcare provider’s guidance is dangerous and can significantly increase your risk of serious heart events.”

Why do people stop taking statins, and what are the side effects of stopping them? Let’s get to the heart of it.

Why do I need to take statins?

Statins are typically prescribed to people who have too much “bad” cholesterol (also called LDL or low-density lipoprotein) or who have a history of heart conditions like heart attack or stroke. They’re also used by people who’ve had heart procedures, like stents or bypass surgery.

Statins keep your body from creating cholesterol by blocking a cholesterol-making enzyme from getting to your liver. That’s important because when you have too much bad cholesterol, it builds up inside your arteries. That’s called plaque buildup, and it raises your risk for conditions like heart attack, stroke and heart disease.

Often, people think of high cholesterol as an effect of eating a poor diet. But that’s not the full story. Your body creates 75% of your cholesterol itself. The remaining 25% comes from your diet. Statins stop your body from making cholesterol, and that makes a big difference.

What are the side effects of stopping statins?

When you stop taking statins, your body goes back to making cholesterol.

“If you stop taking cholesterol medicine, your cholesterol will rise again, and that means you have an increased risk of very serious complications,” Dr. Cho warns.

Researchers have shown that when people stop taking statins, they have a much higher likelihood of major heart events, including:

People who are taking a statin after already having a heart event, like a heart attack, stroke or heart surgery, are at the highest risk for these serious side effects. But the risk is still high for anyone who stops taking statins.

Advertisement

Dr. Cho recommends that anyone who’s prescribed a statin for any reason should keep taking it unless directed by a healthcare provider, like a cardiologist. “These are life-threatening outcomes that can be avoided by taking your medication as prescribed.”

If I change my diet, can I stop taking statins?

Some people can lower their LDL cholesterol with lifestyle changes, like following a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly and quitting smoking.

But your genetics matter, too. Some people’s bodies just create more cholesterol than others. So, not everyone can diet and exercise their way to a healthier cholesterol number.

“Some people have high cholesterol and when they change their diet, their cholesterol level goes down, and they may not need statins,” Dr. Cho clarifies. “But for most people with high cholesterol, their body makes a lot more cholesterol than they need. And even if they change their diet, their cholesterol numbers don’t change much. In those cases, we turn to cholesterol-lowering medicine.”

Even while taking statins, it’s important to keep up with regular exercise and to follow a heart-healthy diet — more fruits, vegetables, lean meats and unsaturated fats. But you may still need medications to keep your cholesterol at a safe level.

Talk with your healthcare provider about your lifestyle changes and their potential to affect your cholesterol before discontinuing statins on your own.

Do I need statins if my cholesterol is normal now?

It can be tempting to consider stopping statins if your cholesterol reaches normal limits. But chances are it’s because of the statins that your cholesterol is under control.

Statins aren’t like antibiotics. You take antibiotics for a few days until they knock out the bacteria that invaded your immune system. And then, you’re done with the meds.

That’s not the case with statins. Statins don’t just kick out your cholesterol and reset you back to normal. They continue to work, day in and day out, to fight inflammation and to keep your body from making too much cholesterol. Because of that, statins are an ongoing medication for most people.

If you stop taking statins, your cholesterol will very likely increase to its original level (or even higher). And you’ll be at higher risk for major heart events.

Why do people stop taking statins?

When you’re prescribed a medication, like a statin, it’s because your healthcare provider believes it will help you. They’re trying to keep you healthy.

Advertisement

But some studies estimate that 20% of people who are prescribed statins stop taking them.

Why people stop statins is a personal decision, but Dr. Cho says it usually comes back to a few typical reasons.

A wish to take fewer medications

A common concern among people is that they want to take less medicine. Or as Dr. Cho says, “A lot of people stop taking statins because they think it’s an almost moral failing to be on medication. And it’s really not.”

Remember, even extreme changes to your diet aren’t likely to change the fact that your body is making more cholesterol. Even getting into tip-top physical shape doesn’t guarantee that you won’t need to take a statin. It’s just not something most people can control.

“I tell people that my goal is to prevent you from having a heart attack or stroke and to not die,” Dr. Cho emphasizes. “If we can do it with less medication, great. But the goal isn’t less medication. The goal is preventing serious consequences.”

Avoiding negative side effects

Some people stop taking statins because they experience side effects that they don’t like, most notably muscle pains and joint aches. Some people may also experience nausea.

Rather than discontinuing medications because of side effects, Dr. Cho urges people to talk with their healthcare provider about their symptoms.

“There are other types of statins and other dosages that you and your cardiologist can try to reduce or eliminate those side effects,” she stresses.

Bottom line: Don’t stop taking your statins

Statins are an important and necessary part of many, many people’s heart-healthy regimens. There’s no safe way to stop taking statins without first consulting with your healthcare provider.

“High cholesterol is a silent killer because you won’t feel anything until something extreme happens,” Dr. Cho emphasizes. “Keep taking your statins. Stay well.”

Related Articles

person holding hands to upper chest
January 26, 2024
How To Tell the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Panic Attack

To help determine what you’re experiencing, focus on how the pain feels, the location of the pain, when it started and how long it lasts

A sad couple standing on each side of a large broken heart
December 3, 2023
Yes, You Can Die From a Broken Heart — But No, It’s Not Likely at All

The emotional toll of loss and other strong emotions can have life-threatening physical effects

Person with chest pain and hard to breathe with heart and heartbeat in background.
July 18, 2023
What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?

Symptoms may be mild, but don’t be fooled — any heart attack is serious

Doctor listens to patient's heart during an office appointment.
April 24, 2023
Early Signs of a Heart Attack To Take Seriously

Subtle heart attack warning signs include pressure, cold sweats and fatigue

woman with chest pain
April 23, 2023
Why Does My Chest Hurt? 3 Signs It Might Not Be a Heart Attack

Not all chest discomfort is a symptom of a heart attack

Erythritol sweetener in a bowl.
March 6, 2023
Artificial Sweetener Erythritol’s Major Health Risks

This common sugar substitute is linked to heart attack and stroke

woman eating a burger
February 8, 2023
Why Are Heart Attacks on the Rise in Young People?

Sedentary lifestyles are driving up heart attack numbers in the under-40 crowd

older person in exercise clothes sitting outside next to yoga mat and water bottle holding apple
February 7, 2023
How To Prevent a Heart Attack

Lifestyle choices involving food, exercise, sleep and more can help reduce your risk

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad