What are the Medical Uses of Nitroglycerin?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2019
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Nitroglycerin has a dilating effect on the blood vessels and a doctor may prescribe it to treat a number of conditions involving restriction of the blood flow. This treatment is particularly in patients with angina, which is chest pain caused by spasms in the blood vessels around the heart. Doctors have known about the therapeutic properties of this compound since the 1800s, although they often used different names, like “glyceryl trinitrate” to distance the therapeutic medication from the explosive. The concentrations for therapeutic use are significantly lower than those found in explosives.

When patients take nitroglycerin, it triggers relaxation of the blood vessel walls, opening them up and allowing blood to flow more freely. Angina patients may take the drug as needed to treat episodes of pain and in patients with exercise-induced angina, a doctor may recommend taking nitroglycerin before exercising to keep the vessels open and prevent pain. Care providers may also give this medication to a patient having a myocardial infarction as part of the treatment protocol.


Patients in heart failure may need this medication to reduce the load on the heart so it does not need to work as hard. It can also be used in tilt table testing, and is sometimes used to treat medical issues caused by restricted bloodflow in a specific area of the body, with a patch applied directly to that location to open up the blood vessels. This can prevent cramping, pain, and tissue death by making sure the area gets enough blood.

Pharmaceutical companies produce nitroglycerin sprays, patches, and tablets. Some tablets are sublingual, designed to be placed under the tongue so they can dissolve slowly, while others are swallowed whole. It is important to avoid crushing, chewing, or cutting tablets, because they are in an extended release form. If the tablet is broken up, it can release too much at once and may pose health risks to the patient.

Common nitroglycerin side effects include dizziness and headaches. It is a good idea to take the drug while sitting or lying down to avoid feeling unstable. People can also experience a burning, tingling sensation when they use topical nitroglycerin preparations like sublingual tablets. If patients experience chest pain, develop gastrointestinal distress, or feel disoriented, they should contact a doctor, as the nitroglycerin may not be helping, or the patient may be having a reaction to the medication.

Patients taking this drug, as well as their family members, should be aware that the medication can rub off onto personal belongings, leading to false detections by bomb sniffing dogs and chemical swabs. While traveling, it is a good idea to alert security personnel ahead of time about the presence of nitroglycerin residue, so they will not be alarmed.


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