What Are the Effects of Heparin?

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  • Written By: Amanda Livingstone
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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The effects of heparin in the human body can be beneficial in conditions such as atrial fibrillation and hemofiltration. In each of these conditions, heparin acts as an anticoagulant, which prevents the blood from forming dangerous clots. Use of heparin has many benefits, however, the medication can have dangerous, if not deadly, side effects. Serious side effects such as heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), hyperkalemia and death are known to occur in heparin overdoses.

Anithrombin III (AT-III) is a naturally-occurring anticoagulant molecule in the human body. The molecule’s anticoagulant efficacy is greatly increased when bound with heparin or unfractionated heparin. After binding of AT-III and heparin, a complex reaction results, which decreases the amount of coagulation enzymes thrombin and factor Xa. Compared to standard or unfractionated heparin, low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) will only have anti-factor Xa activity, which increases anticoagulation predictability in some health conditions such as atrial fibrillation.

Anticoagulants such as heparin and LMWH are used to prevent thrombosis, which is the formation of a blood clot. Conditions such as atrial fibrillation and hemofiltration benefit directly from the effects of heparin on the AT-III molecule. Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition that increases the risk of stroke due to blood clots. Heparin is the preferred anticoagulant for preventing blood clotting in atrial fibrillation due to its immediate effects. Sometimes medical professionals use LMWH over heparin due to its reduced monitoring time and subcutaneous administration.


Hemofiltration is a process that uses renal dialysis machines to treat patients with acute kidney failure. Administrated heparin is used to form an anti-clotting agent between the patient’s blood and the dialysis test tubes. Anticoagulant effects of heparin will help to prevent thrombosis.

Adverse effects of heparin can have the potential to cause serious health issues such as HIT and hyperkalemia. HIT is a reversible and immunological reaction that causes the blood platelets to deteriorate, leading to a low platelet count. Once heparin is discontinued, platelet count usually returns to normal. Another complication of heparin is high potassium levels in the blood. High potassium, or hyperkalemia, is induced when heparin blocks an enzyme in the synthesis of aldosterone hormone.

Early symptoms of hyperkalemia are heart palpitations and muscle weakness. When heparin is not discontinued and hyperkalemia is allowed to progress, much more serious issues such as cardiac arrhythmia will most likely occur. Arrhythmias can be characterized by irregular slow or fast heartbeats. In severe cases, heparin-induced hyperkalemia may cause cardiac arrest, which often leads to death.


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