What Are the Side Effects of Statins?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 17, 2024
10 min read

Statins are a class of drugs often prescribed by doctors to help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. By lowering the levels, they help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Studies show that statins may reduce the risk of heart attackstroke, and even death from heart disease by about 25%. 

There are several types of statins. Some older ones might reduce cholesterol by 25% to 35%, while newer ones may reduce it by up to 50%.

 

Estimates are that, in addition to the people already taking them, another 15 million to 20 million people should be taking statin drugs based on their risk factors for heart disease

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults ages 40 to 75 years should consider taking a statin if their doctor calculates they have a 10% risk of getting atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) over the next 10 years. The calculation takes into account your sex, race, and age, as well as if you smoke or have diabetes, and what your blood pressure is.

Your doctor can do a simple blood test to determine the amount of cholesterol in your blood. If you have high levels of LDL ("bad”) cholesterol, you have a greater chance of getting heart disease, especially when there are other things that increase your risk. Based on your overall risk, your doctor may recommend you take statins to help lower your cholesterol by a certain amount.

 

Statin drugs work by blocking the action of the liver enzyme that is responsible for producing cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause a buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries. That buildup can eventually cause the arteries to narrow or harden. Sudden blood clots in these narrowed arteries can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Not all cholesterol is bad. It's good, for instance, to have high levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. HDL cholesterol prevents plaque buildup in the arteries by transporting the bad (LDL) cholesterol out of the blood to the liver. From there, your body gets rid of it.

Statins lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. At the same time, they lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Statins may also help to stabilize plaques in the arteries, making heart attacks less likely.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle while taking a statin can make the drug work better. Be sure to:

Most people who take statin drugs tolerate them very well. But some people have side effects.

The most common statin side effects include:

Less common side effects you may have with statins are:

  • Nausea
  • Hair loss
  • Pins and needles sensations, such as pricking, numbness, or tingling on your skin
  • Liver inflammation, which can make you feel like you have the flu
  • Pancreas inflammation, which can cause stomach pain
  • Skin problems such as rashes or acne
  • Sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction or a low sex drive 

Statins also carry warnings that memory loss, mental confusion, neuropathy, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes are possible side effects. It's important to remember that statins may also interact with other medications you take.

CoQ10 and statins

Many people choose to take coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) along with their statins. It’s a naturally occurring enzyme, which means your body makes it. Statins may lower the amount of CoQ10 in your body, though. Although there is no research to prove it yet, some people believe that CoQ10 supplements may help reduce muscle aches. If you choose to take CoQ10 supplements, be sure to tell your doctor so it can be added to your medication list. 

When statins started becoming popular, rumors began that people who took them were more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies done over the past 2 decades didn’t find this. In fact, they proved the opposite.

People didn't have a higher risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease if they took statins, and taking statins could actually help decrease the risk in some groups, such as people with heart failure. People with Alzheimer’s disease or mixed dementia might see an improvement in their dementia while on statins.

People who have diabetes, either type 1 or type 2, are more likely to get heart disease, especially if they have high LDL levels. When this happens, they may take statins to lower their heart disease risk.

Can statins increase blood sugar?

The risk is small, but statins can raise blood sugar levels, especially if they were higher than normal to start, for people who have prediabetes or diabetes.

Statins are linked to a few rare but potentially serious side effects, including:

  • Myositis, which is inflammation of the muscles. The risk of muscle injury increases when certain other medications are taken with statins. For example, if you take a combination of a statin and a fibrate – another cholesterol-reducing drug – the risk of muscle damage increases greatly, compared to someone who takes a statin alone.
  • Elevated levels of CPK, or creatine kinase, a muscle enzyme that, when elevated, can cause muscle pain, mild inflammation, and muscle weakness. This condition, though uncommon, can take a long time to clear up.
  • Rhabdomyolysis, extreme muscle inflammation and damage. With this condition, muscles all over the body become painful and weak. The severely damaged muscles release proteins and electrolytes into the blood that collect in the kidneys.These substances are harmful to your kidneys and can ultimately lead to kidney failure or even death. Fortunately, rhabdomyolysis is extremely rare. It happens in less than one in 10,000 people taking statins.

If you have any unexplained joint or muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness while taking statins, you should call your doctor right away.

Some studies link statin use with birth defects. Doctors advise pregnant women not to use these drugs.

Statins and memory loss

It isn’t common, but some people do have confusion while taking statins. This goes away as soon as they stop taking the drugs. Some people also report having memory loss. But several studies that looked for memory loss related to statins didn't find a connection. Interestingly, some studies have shown an improvement in brain function among some people taking statins.

Do statins cause you to gain weight?

Statins could cause some weight gain, but it may not be from the drug itself. The weight gain could be because people may feel more comfortable eating higher-cholesterol foods, believing that the statins will protect them.

Not everyone who takes a statin will have side effects, but some things can increase your risk of side effects with statins. You may be more likely to have side effects if you: 

  • Take more than one medication to control your cholesterol
  • Are a woman
  • Have a small body frame
  • Are 80 or older
  • Have kidney or liver disease
  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Have some other health conditions, such as hypothyroidism or neuromuscular disorders

Some foods and medications don’t mix well with statins and can make side effects worse:

There are other medications that can cause problems if you take them with statins. You should tell your doctor about all over-the-counter or prescription drugs, herbal supplements, or vitamins that you use.

Statins and alcohol

There are no specific warnings not to drink alcohol while taking a statin. That said, drinking alcohol can increase your LDL and triglycerides. So if you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, it’s best to limit the amount of alcohol you drink.

If you drink large amounts of alcohol, you may be at risk of more serious side effects.

Grapefruit and statins

Grapefruit juice can have an effect on certain medications, including some statins. The juice can make the drug more potent, which can be dangerous. If you enjoy drinking grapefruit juice and would rather not give it up, speak with your doctor to see what you can do.

The statins that are most affected by grapefruit juice are:

  • Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • Lovastatin (Mevacor)
  • Simvastatin (Zocor)

The ones that have little or no effect from grapefruit juice are:

  • Fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • Pitavastatin (Livalo)
  • Pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • Rosuvastatin (Crestor)

Your doctor may be able to suggest some ways to relieve the side effects caused by statins. It may help to ask your doctor if you:

  • Can take a break from statins, which can help you learn if the drugs are the cause of muscle aches or other side effects
  • Could try a different statin drug or dose
  • Can try another type of medication to lower your cholesterol
  • Should take vitamin D or coenzyme Q10 supplements, which may stave off side effects in some people. If you choose to take the supplement first, be sure to tell your doctor the next time you visit or speak.  
  • Should exercise regularly
  • Should lose weight
  • Should have your thyroid hormone levels checked

Statin drugs list

Statin medications that are approved for use in the U.S. include:

  • Altocor
  • Crestor
  • Lescol
  • Lipitor
  • Livalo
  • Mevacor
  • Pravachol
  • Zocor

Since their arrival on the market, statins have been among the most prescribed drugs in the U.S., with up to 92 million users.

What can I take instead of statins to lower cholesterol?

Not everyone can or wants to take statins to lower their cholesterol. If you are interested in alternatives, speak with your doctor. There are some other things that may help you lower your cholesterol levels. Your doctor might prescribe:

Natural statins

Nature provides us with some natural statins that may help lower LDL levels, such as  omega-3 fatty acids, which you can take as a supplement but is also found in:

  • Flaxseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Salmon
  • Shellfish
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans

Other food products that may lower cholesterol include:

  • Fruits, especially avocados
  • Vegetables, especially broccoli
  • Legumes
  • Whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Soy products like tofu

Some herbs are believed to lower cholesterol but it’s not yet been proven: 

  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Holy basil
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric

Lifestyle changes

Lowering your cholesterol shouldn’t focus only on taking medications but in changing some things about your lifestyle, too. These changes may not lower your cholesterol to ideal levels, but they could help lower them, reducing the amount of medication you need. 

  • Choose healthy food options:
    • Fewer saturated fats and trans fats
    • More foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids
    • More soluble fiber
    • Add whey protein (found in dairy products) to your diet.
  • Increase your activity levels. You don’t need to go to the gym to get more active. You might:
    • Take walks
    • Play a favorite sport
    • Go dancing
    • Garden
  • If you smoke, stop
  • Lose weight if needed
  • Limit your alcohol consumption

Having high LDL levels can be dangerous, leading to heart disease or a stroke. Statins are very common drugs that can help you reduce your LDL levels. Speak with your doctor about taking statins. If you are at risk of side effects from statins, you can take some steps to reduce those risks, such as limiting alcohol intake or losing weight. Always speak with your doctor before stopping a statin.

Are statins banned in Europe? European regulators have different recommendations as to who should start taking statins and when, but there is no European ban on statins.

Which statin is least likely to cause muscle pain? There are two statins that are less likely to cause muscle pain: rosuvastatin (Crestor) and pravastatin (Pravachol).

Can you stop taking a statin? You can stop taking a statin any time, but don't do so without speaking with your doctor first. You will need to discuss why you want to stop taking it and the risks if you do stop.

Why are some doctors against statins? Some doctors are concerned about their patients having side effects, like muscle pain or higher blood sugar, while they are on statins. Some also believe that once you start taking statins, you must stay on them. Luckily, this isn’t true.