- A Visual Guide to Heart Disease
- Medical Illustrations of the Heart Image Collection
- Take the Heart Disease Quiz!
- What are vasodilators, and how do they work (mechanism of action)?
- Why does a blood vessel dilate?
- What diseases or other health conditions are vasodilators used to treat?
- Are there herbal, natural, or over-the-counter (OTC) vasodilator products available?
- Is caffeine a vasodilator?
- Vasodilator side effects and adverse effects
- Drug, Supplement, and Food interactions with vasodilators
- List of types and examples of generic and brand name vasodilators
- What are pulmonary vasodilators?
- Is it safe to use these drugs if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?
- What forms (preparations) are available for these drugs?
What are vasodilators, and how do they work (mechanism of action)?
A vasodilator is a drug that causes vasodilation, a widening (opening) of blood vessels that results from relaxation of the smooth muscle of the vessels. What widens in vasodilation actually is the diameter of the interior (lumen) of the vessel. The opposite of vasodilation is vasoconstriction.
This type of medicine works through several mechanisms. For example:
- ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors: ACE inhibitors slows (inhibits) the activity of the enzyme ACE, which decreases the production of a chemical (angiotensin) that causes the blood vessels to narrow. As a result, blood pressure reduces (lowers) because of the enlarged (dilated) blood vessels.
- ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers): ARBs is another type of medicine that enlarges blood vessels. They work by blocking angiotensin from attaching to the smooth muscle of blood vessels. This causes vasodillation.
- CCBs (calcium channel blockers): The smooth muscles cells of the arteries use calcium for muscle contraction. CCBs block calcium from entering into the smooth cells, which relax the artery muscles. This leads to dilation (opening) of the artery.
- Nitrates: Nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which activates another chemical that causes the veins and arteries to open. Doctors prescribe nitrates to treat angina (heart or cardiac pain).
This article does not contain the complete information about vasodilators. Please refer to the individual drug class or drug articles for further medical reference.
Why does a blood vessel dilate?
A blood vessel carries blood. They also help the body regulate blood pressure and blood flow to organs. When a blood vessel dilates (opens), it allows more blood flow.
Widening of arteries (a type of blood vessel) reduces blood pressure because dilation of the arteries makes it is easier for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body.
- When arteries open, it increases the blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart.
- When veins open, it reduces the amount of blood returned to the heart chambers.
What diseases or other health conditions are vasodilators used to treat?
Doctors prescribe this type of medicine to treat several diseases and health conditions, and their symptoms. Some of the cardiovascular diseases and other health problems treated with these medications include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Congestive heart failure (CHF)
- Cardiac pain or heart pain (angina)
- Prevention of stroke
- Prevention of a heart attack
- Prevention of heart failure after a heart attack
- High blood pressure in pregnant women (Preeclampsia)
- High blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
- Diabetic nephropathy
- Raynaud's syndrome
- Subarachnoid hemorrhage
Are there herbal, natural, or over-the-counter (OTC) vasodilator products available?
Examples of natural herbs or supplements that cause blood vessels to open include:
Is caffeine a vasodilator?
Vasodilator side effects and adverse effects
If you take this type of drug therapy for high blood pressure (hypertension) or another medical condition, it may reduce your blood pressure too much. If your blood pressure is too low (hypotension), you may feel dizzy, which is a symptom of low blood pressure.
Other side effects patients may experience include:
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Drug, Supplement, and Food interactions with vasodilators
Combining vasodilators may reduce blood pressure too much. However, in some patients, two or more vasodilators are combined to treat high blood pressure that cannot be controlled with only one antihypertensive medication. This is a list of examples of drug interactions that patients being treated with some types of vasodilators may experience.
Examples of ACE inhibitor interactions
- The use of potassium supplements, salt substitutes (which often contain potassium), or any medication that increase the body's potassium may result in excessive blood potassium levels because ACE inhibitors also increase blood levels of potassium.
- Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors also may increase the blood concentration of lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid) and lead to an increase in side effects from lithium. Symptoms of too much lithium include nausea, vomiting, cramping, and sometimes diarrhea.
- Combining ACE inhibitors with ARBs increases the risk of low blood pressure, high blood potassium, and kidney problems.
- Facial flushing, nausea, vomiting and low blood pressure (nitritoid reactions) may occur when injectable (gold sodium aurothiomalate [Myochrysine]), used in the treatment of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, is combined with ACE inhibitors.
Example of calcium channel blocker (CCBs) interactions
- Verapamil (Calan, Isoptin) and diltiazem (Cardizem) decrease the elimination of a number of medications that are broken down by the liver. Through this mechanism, verapamil and diltiazem may reduce the elimination and increase the blood levels of carbamazepine (Tegretol), simvastatin (Zocor), atorvastatin (Lipitor), and lovastatin (Mevacor). This can lead to toxicity from these medications.
- Grapefruit juice (approximately 200 ml) may increase blood concentrations of felodipine (Plendil), verapamil (Calan, Isoptin), nisoldipine (Sular), nifedipine (Adalat, Procardia), nicardipine (Cardene), and possibly amlodipine (Norvasc). Patients should not drink grapefruit juice within 2 hours before or 4 hours after taking of affected CCBs.
Examples of nitrate drug interactions
IMAGESBrowse through our medical image collection to see illustrations of human anatomy and physiology See Images
List of types and examples of generic and brand name vasodilators
List of ACE inhibitors
- benazepril (Lotensin)
- captopril (Capoten)
- enalapril (Vasotec, Epaned)
- fosinopril (Monopril)
- lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril)
- moexipril (Univasc)
- perindopril (Aceon)
- quinapril (Accupril)
- ramipril (Altace)
- trandolapril (Mavik)
List of ARBs
- azilsartan (Edarbi)
- candesartan (Atacand)
- eprosartan (Teveten)
- irbesartan (Avapro)
- telmisartan (Micardis)
- valsartan (Diovan)
- losartan (Cozaar)
- olmesartan (Benicar)
List of CCBs
- amlodipine (Norvasc)
- clevidipine (Cleviprex)
- diltiazem (Cardizem)
- felodipine (Cardene, Cardene SR)
- nisoldipine (Sular)
- verapamil (Calan)
List of nitrates
What are pulmonary vasodilators?
Pulmonary vasodilators are medicines that dilate small arteries in the lungs. Doctors prescribe pulmonary vasodilators to treat patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a health condition that involves constriction of pulmonary arteries. Examples of pulmonary vasodilators include:
Is it safe to use these drugs if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?
- ACE inhibitors and ARBs: You should not take Ace inhibitors or ARBs if you are pregnant because they cause birth defects in the newborn. Doctor’s also do not recommend taking this type of drug if you are breastfeeding.
- CCBs: Researchers have not evaluated the safety of calcium channel in pregnant women.
- Verapamil crosses the placenta and affects the fetus. Verapamil and diltiazem are present in breast milk and doctors and other medical professionals do not recommend them for nursing mothers.
- Nitrates: Researchers have not adequately evaluated the safety of nitrates in pregnant or nursing women.
- Minoxidil and hydralazine: Researchers have not adequately evaluated the safety of these medicines in pregnant women. They are present in breast milk, and doctors and other health care professionals do not recommend in women who are breastfeeding.
What forms (preparations) are available for these drugs?
Vasodilators are available as tablets, capsules, and injections. Nitrates are available as sublingual tablets or spray, translingual spray, ointment, transdermal patches, and injectable solution.
Vasodilators are a class of drugs that doctors prescribe for many diseases and conditions. This type of medicine dilates, or opens, blood vessels (arteries and veins) so that the heart can pump fresh oxygen and blood to the body more efficiently. Vasodilators are available within a variety of other drug types that have many brand and generic names. Talk with your doctor about all medications and herbal supplements you use and review side effects before taking this or any medication.
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A stroke is an interruption of the blood supply to part of the brain caused by either a blood clot (ischemic) or bleeding (hemorrhagic). Symptoms of a stroke may include: weakness, numbness, double vision or vision loss, confusion, vertigo, difficulty speaking or understanding speech. A physical exam, imaging tests, neurological exam, and blood tests may be used to diagnose a stroke. Treatment may include administration of clot-busting drugs, supportive care, and in some instances, neurosurgery. The risk of stroke can be reduced by controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and stopping smoking.
Heart Attack Symptoms and Early Warning Signs
Recognizing heart attack symptoms and signs can help save your life or that of someone you love. Some heart attack symptoms, including left arm pain and chest pain, are well known but other, more nonspecific symptoms may be associated with a heart attack. Nausea, vomiting, malaise, indigestion, sweating, shortness of breath, and fatigue may signal a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms and signs in women may differ from those in men.
14 Signs and Symptoms of Stroke (FAST)
Stroke is a serious medical condition. If you think you or someone you know is having a stroke call 911 immediately. There are two main types of strokes, hemorrhagic and ischemic (the most common type). A hemorrhagic stroke occurs due to a blood vessel rupture in the brain. An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot becomes lodged in a blood vessel in the brain, which causes a loss of blood supply to the brain, possibly causing brain tissue death. FAST is an acronym that helps people identify stroke signs and symptoms so they can act fast and call 911. Face drooping, Arm weakness, and Speech difficulty are indicators that a person may be having a stroke and it is Time to seek emergency medical treatment. Additional signs and symptoms of stroke may include weakness, difficulty walking, blurred vision, dizziness, headache, confusion, difficulty speaking, and loss of sensation. Stroke is a major cause of death and disability in the U.S. Early identification and treatment of stroke helps reduce the risk of morbidity and mortality.
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Fitness: Exercise for a Healthy Heart
Regular exercise can help reduce the risk of heart disease. To achieve maximum benefits, do a mix of stretching exercise, aerobic activity, and strengthening exercise. Aim to get 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three to four times a week. Consult a doctor before exercising for the first time, especially if you have health problems.
Heart Disease in Women
Heart disease in women has somewhat different symptoms, risk factors, and treatment compared to heart disease in men. Many women and health professionals are not aware of the risk factors for heart disease in women and may delay diagnosis and treatment. Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, tobacco use, overweight/obesity, stress, alcohol consumption, and depression influence heart disease risk in women. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes also increase women's risk of heart disease. Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), stress-ECG, endothelial testing, ankle-brachial index (ABI), echocardiogram, nuclear imaging, electron beam CT, and lab tests to assess blood lipids and biomarkers of inflammation are used to diagnose heart disease. Early diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women saves lives. Heart disease can be prevented and reversed with lifestyle changes.
Hypertensive Kidney Disease
High blood pressure can damage the kidneys and is one of the leading causes of kidney failure (end-stage renal kidney disease). Kidney damage, like hypertension, can be unnoticeable and detected only through medical tests. If you have kidney disease, you should control your blood pressure. Other treatment options include prescription medications.
Heart Attack Treatment
A heart attack involves damage or death of part of the heart muscle due to a blood clot. The aim of heart attack treatment is to prevent or stop this damage to the heart muscle. Heart attack treatments included medications, procedures, and surgeries to protect the heart muscle against injury.
Diabetes and Kidney Disease
In the United States diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure. High blood pressure and high levels of blood glucose increase the risk that a person with diabetes will eventually progress to kidney failure. Kidney disease in people with diabetes develops over the course of many years. albumin and eGFR are two key markers for kidney disease in people with diabetes. Controlling high blood pressure, blood pressure medications, a moderate protein diet, and compliant management of blood glucose can slow the progression of kidney disease. For those patients who's kidneys eventually fail, dialysis or kidney transplantation is the only option.
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Heart disease, particularly coronary artery disease is the leading cause of heart attacks. Women are more likely to die from a heart attack than men. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and high triglycerides are contributors to heart disease. Some of the common symptoms of a heart attack in women include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, feeling faint or woozy, and more. Heart disease can be prevented by lifestyle changes and controlling high blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and diseases such as diabetes.
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A stroke or "brain attack" is caused because blood flow to an area of the brain has been cut off by a blood clot or by a weakened or damaged blood vessel (for example, head trauma). The damaged area of the brain dies, which results in loss of function like speech capabilities, muscle movement, or muscles of an extremity like an arm or leg is reduced or lost completely. An aneurysm is a weakness in an artery wall. This weakness in the wall causes the artery to widen or balloon out, and then they rupture or break open. A person with an brain aneurysm generally won't have any symptoms until it becomes a problem. The symptoms and signs are similar to a stroke.Symptoms and signs of a stroke include: Vision problems Severe headache with no known cause Loss of memory Trouble getting words out Trouble typing, texting, or other coordination problems Both the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recommend using the FAST system to recognize and treat strokes. If you think someone may be having a stroke, remember FAST! F - Facial drooping A - Arm weakness S - Speech difficulty T - time - DO NOT DELAY. Call 911.If you think someone is having a stroke or aneurysm call 911 immediately. Both conditions require medical treatment. The prognosis for both diseases depend on the extent of the damage to the brain and any other affected areas of the body.
Smoking and Heart Disease
Smoking increases the risk of heart disease in women and men. Nicotine in cigarettes decrease oxygen to the heart, increases blood pressure, blood clots, and damages coronary arteries. Learn how to quit smoking today, to prolong your life.
Heart Attack Prevention
Heart disease and heart attacks can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle with diet, exercise, and stress management. Symptoms of heart attack in men and women include chest discomfort and pain in the shoulder, neck, jaw, stomach, or back. Women experience the same symptoms as men; however, they also may experience: Extreme fatigue Pain in the upper abdomen Dizziness Fainting Leading a healthy lifestyle with a heart healthy low-fat diet, and exercise can help prevent heart disease and heart attack.
Stroke is the third leading killer in the United States. Some of the warning signs of stroke include sudden confusion, trouble seeing with one or both eyes, dizziness, loss of balance, and more. Stroke prevention and reatable risk factors for stroke include lowering high blood pressure, quit smoking, heart disease, diabetes control and prevention.
Vitamins & Exercise: Heart Attack Prevention Series
Vitamins and exercise can lower your risk for heart attack and heart disease. Folic acid, vitamins, and homocysteine levels are interconnected and affect your risk for heart disease or heart attack. For better heart health, avoid the following: fried foods, hard margarine, commercial baked goods, most packaged and processed snack foods, high fat dairy, and processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats. Antioxidants and exercise also play a key role in heart attack and heart disease prevention. Lower your risk factors for heart disease and heart attack by: lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, diabetes prevention, and smoking cesssation. Here are a few things you can do to prevent heart attacks: Eat whole, natural, fresh foods, eat five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, eat more omega-3 fatty acids, drink water, tea, non-fat dairy and red wine, eat lean proteins, limit glycemic foods, and exercise daily.
Heart Disease Treatment in Women
Heart disease treatment in women should take into account female-specific guidelines that were developed by the American Heart Association. Risk factors and symptoms of heart disease in women differ from those in men. Treatment may include lifestyle modification (diet, exercise, weight management, smoking cessation, stress reduction), medications, percutaneous intervention procedure (PCI), and coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). Heart disease is reversible with treatment.
Heart Attack Prevention Overview
Heart attacks are the major causes of unexpected, sudden death among men and women. A heart attack also is a significant cause of heart failure. The process of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) begins early in life. Heart attack prevention should begin in childhood because the atherosclerosis process can not be reversed. The risk of having a heart attack increases if you have diseases or conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and other heart conditions. You can lowering your risk of having a heart attack by: Lifestyle changes, for example: Diet Exercise Quit smoking Control high blood pressure, diabetes, and other diseases that are risk factors) In some cases, medication is the most effective way of preventing a heart attack
Treatment & Diagnosis
Medications & Supplements
- ACE Inhibitors (Side Effects, List of Names, Uses, and Dosage)
- Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARBs)
- lisinopril (Zestril, Prinivil, Qbrelis) ACE Inhibitor
- captopril (Capoten)
- enalapril (Vasotec, Epaned)
- benazepril (Lotensin HTC)
- perindopril - oral, Aceon
- trandolapril (Mavik)
- quinapril (Accupril)
- abatacept (Orencia)
- fosinopril sodium, Monopril
- moexipril - oral, Univasc
Prevention & Wellness
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Report Problems to the Food and Drug Administration
You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.
Collard, CL., et al. "Medication Update." Medscape.
FDA. "Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitor (ACE inhibitor) Drugs."
FDA. "Angiotensin Receptor Blockers (ARBs) Information."
Kannam, JP., MD, et al. "Nitrates in the management of stable angina pectoris." UpToDate. Updated: May 25, 2019.