Can People in Heart Failure Safely Reduce Diuretics?

Diuretics help people with heart failure reduce excess fluids that can cause shortness of breath, swollen legs, coughing and weight gain.

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Heart failure is a common ailment afflicting older Americans, and many take drugs called diuretics to rid the body of excess fluid buildup that can impede breathing.

Now, a team of Brazilian researchers say that, in some cases, it’s safe for patients with stable heart failure to stop taking diuretic drugs.

“Patients don’t like using diuretics because they feel they have to stay at home to use the bathroom and they get cramps,” noted study principal investigator Dr. Luis Rohde, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

“Patients would welcome being able to stop this medication,” he said, and the new study suggests it can often be done safely.

One U.S. expert who reviewed the new findings stressed that diuretics are key to heart failure care.

Congestive heart failure is one of the most common chronic ailments in the United States, characterized primarily by volume (fluid) overload,” explained Dr. Mohammed Imam. In heart failure, a damaged or weakened heart fails to pump blood as efficiently as it should.

“The mainstay of treatment for decades have been diuretics,” said Imam, who directs cardiothoracic surgery at The Heart Institute at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City. Diuretics help patients with heart failure reduce excess fluids that can cause shortness of breath, swollen legs, coughing and weight gain.

However, the Brazilian team noted that prior studies have also found long-term diuretic use to be linked with worse patient outcomes.

So, can diuretic use be safely reduced? To find out, Rohde’s team tracked outcomes for 188 outpatients in Brazil with stable chronic heart failure who were taking the diuretic furosemide.

The patients were randomly selected to either keep taking the drug (the “maintenance” group) or to start taking an inactive placebo instead (the “withdrawal” group). The patients did not know if they were still taking furosemide or not.

Over the next 90 days, there was no difference between the two groups in patient-reported shortness of breath, the team reported.

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