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Using Nitroglycerin for Angina - Topic Overview

What is nitroglycerin?

Nitroglycerin is a vasodilator, a medicine that opens blood vessels to improve blood flow. It is used to treat angina symptoms, such as chest pain or discomfort that happens when there is not enough blood flowing to the heart. To improve blood flow to the heart, nitroglycerin opens up (dilates) the arteries in the heart (coronary arteries), which improves symptoms and reduces how hard the heart has to work.

Nitroglycerin comes in quick-acting forms and long-acting forms.

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Quick-acting forms of nitroglycerin are used to relieve angina or used just before activities that typically cause angina. The quick-acting forms include tablets or oral sprays. The tablets are placed under the tongue (sublingual) or between the cheek and gum (buccal). The spray is used on or under the tongue. This topic covers these quick-acting forms of nitroglycerin.

Long-acting forms of nitroglycerin are used to prevent angina from happening. They are not used to stop sudden symptoms of angina. These long-acting forms include pills, tablets, skin ointment, and skin patches. This topic does not cover these long-acting forms of nitroglycerin.

Your doctor will prescribe the right amount for you. Do not use another person's nitroglycerin.

When do I use quick-acting nitroglycerin?

Your doctor will advise you when to use your nitroglycerin. In general, quick-acting nitroglycerin is used:

  • To relieve sudden angina.
  • Before stressful activities that can cause angina, such as walking uphill or having sexual intercourse.

How do I use quick-acting nitroglycerin?

  • Sit or lie down to take your nitroglycerin. If you are driving, pull over and park the car. Taking nitroglycerin can lower your blood pressure, which could cause you to pass out if you are standing up.
  • For sudden episodes of angina, use nitroglycerin in a tablet or liquid spray form.
    • Place the under-the-tongue (sublingual) tablet under your tongue. Leave it there until it dissolves. If you accidentally swallow the tablet, take another. The medicine won't work if it is swallowed.
    • Place the between-cheek-and-gum (buccal) tablet between your cheek and gum. Leave it there until it dissolves. If you accidentally swallow the tablet, take another. The medicine won't work if it is swallowed.
    • Use the spray under your tongue or on top of your tongue. Push the spray canister button once. Close your mouth right away.
  • Take one tablet or spray dose. If after 5 minutes the chest pain is not better or gets worse, call911or other emergency services immediately.
  • After you call 911, continue to stay on the phone with the emergency operator. He or she will give you further instructions.
  • Regardless of what happens, you should let your doctor know that you had an episode of angina. If this is unusual for you, if your angina episodes are occurring more frequently or lasting longer, or if you need more medicine to control them, tell your doctor. Report any change in your angina symptoms (unstable angina) to your doctor.
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