Anticoagulants are drugs used to prevent clot formation or to prevent a clot that has formed from enlarging. They inhibit clot formation by blocking the action of clotting factors or platelets. Anticoagulant drugs fall into three categories: inhibitors of clotting factor synthesis, inhibitors of thrombin and antiplatelet drugs.
Anticoagulant drugs reduce the ability of the blood to form clots. Although blood clotting is essential to prevent serious bleeding in the case of skin cuts, clots inside the blood vessels block the flow of blood to major organs and cause heart attacks and strokes. Although these drugs are sometimes called blood thinners, they do not actually thin the blood. Furthermore, this type of medication will not dissolve clots that already have formed, although the drug stops an existing clot from worsening. However, another type of drug, used in thrombolytic therapy, will dissolve existing clots.
Anticoagulant drugs are used for a number of conditions. For example, they may be given to prevent blood clots from forming after the replacement of a heart valve or to reduce the risk of a stroke or another heart attack after a first heart attack. They are also used to reduce the chance of blood clots forming during open heart surgery or bypass surgery. Low doses of these drugs may be given to prevent blood clots in patients who must stay in bed for a long time after certain types of surgery.
Because anticoagulants affect the blood's ability to clot, they can increase the risk of severe bleeding and heavy blood loss. It is thus essential to take these drugs exactly as directed and to see a physician regularly as long as they are prescribed.
Nancy Ross-Flanigan, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,