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What is Digitalis?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Digitalis, or Foxglove is used to make a powerful and effective medication to treat those with heart conditions. Foxgloves are beautiful plants, but should be grown with great caution around children, since the leaves are extremely poisonous. Unlike many other modern medications, digitalis derived from leaves has been in use for over 200 years.

At first, the discovery of digitalis by William Withering of England led to its trial for numerous conditions including asthma, tuberculosis, and insanity. It proved unsuccessful in these trials. Its most effective use at the time was for the condition termed dropsy, which was the accumulation of fluid throughout the body generally caused by chronic heart failure.

It was noted in scientific papers in the late 19th century for its ability to slow the heart rate or to increase it as needed. It was also tried as a diuretic, helping to ease fluid retention for those with dropsy. Physicians gave digitalis to those with fevers, since fevers seemed to accelerate the pulse.

Today the properties of digitalis are better understood. It tends to be used for those in heart failure and those prone to arrhythmias. In children it may be used to tide a child over until he or she can grow large enough for corrective heart surgery.

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Digitalis is only slightly effective as a diuretic, and other less toxic medications are frequently preferred, when one only needs medication to control fluid retention. Digitalis very likely relieved fluid retention by promoting better heart function. However, it is not the gold standard choice for addressing fluid retention unless other choices are unavailable to the patient.

Digitalis, often called digoxin in its prescribed form, stimulates receptors in the heart to produce more calcium. This results in the heart beating with more force. As heart failure progresses, the heart tends to grow weak, producing less calcium. In these cases arrhythmias or heart attack are more likely to occur. With medication, risk of heart attack is significantly reduced.

Digitalis requires proper attention to dosage. Too much can result in sudden death or heart rhythm irregularities. Especially when giving this medicine to children, one should be sure to dose properly, using measurement equipment provided by the doctor or pharmacist. One should never measure doses with cooking or household teaspoons. If one thinks he or she has skipped a digitalis dose, but cannot be sure, it is better to forgo taking a second dose. Additionally, digitalis should be stored far out of the reach of children, since even a small amount can be lethal.

If one’s doctor prescribes digitalis, one should be certain to inform the doctor of all medications, vitamins or herbal supplements one takes, regardless of whether they are prescribed or over the counter. Use of any illegal drugs should also be discussed with one’s physician as many substances can interact with digitalis. Some substances actually increase the medication’s toxicity.

Certain medications have known interactions with digitalis. These include other heart medications, like anti-arrhythmia drugs, cholesterol reducing medications, and nitroglycerin. Some antibiotics interact with digitalis, and oral anti-fungal medications should also be avoided. Antacids, decongestants, antihistamines and diarrhea medications may cause adverse reactions too. If one has a cold or cough, it is especially important to consult with a physician about what cold medications may be safe to take.

As with all medications, serious side effects can occur, and nausea, severe diarrhea, skin rash or extreme visual sensitivity to light are potential medical emergencies which require the immediate attention of a physician. When digitalis is well tolerated, it is a saving grace for many afflicted with heart conditions. Digitalis is considered with antibiotics to be one of the most important medications developed in history, since it has significantly increased the life expectancy of those who must use it.

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