What is an Anticoagulant?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An anticoagulant is a type of medication that may be used to prevent blood from coagulating or clotting. There may kinds of anticoagulants and they have different ways of acting. The majority of them are medications that are administered to people to prevent blood clotting in certain illness, but sometimes in lab or medical settings an anti-coagulant is used to prevent things like clogging of intravenous lines or of blood clotting in test tubes and syringes. For medical use in people, it’s also important to mention anti-platelet medications, which have a similar purpose to anticoagulants, though the way they work is different.

Some medications, primarily blood thinners, may contribute to internal bleeding in seniors.
Some medications, primarily blood thinners, may contribute to internal bleeding in seniors.

There are a number of different ways that an anticoagulant may work to keep blood from clotting. Some of the best-known ones like warfarin (Coumadin®) inhibit Vitamin K’s action and are called coumarines. Other medications may inhibit thrombin, which is an enzyme in the blood that aids in blood clotting. Such medications are less commonly used for daily anticoagulant therapy because they must be injected, but they include drugs like hirudin, melagatrane, and lepirudin. Other medications like heparin may act on thrombin indirectly by producing anti-thrombin, and are useful both as a medicine for people and to prevent clotting in medical equipment and supplies.

Anticoagulant therapy may be necessary if a person has atherosclerosis, which is the narrowing of arteries.
Anticoagulant therapy may be necessary if a person has atherosclerosis, which is the narrowing of arteries.

The category of anti-platelet medications is worth mentioning too. These prevent blood clots in a different manner, by preventing what is called platelet aggregation. The term simply means that platelets, a necessary part of blood, have a tendency to collect at the site of injuries to help stop bleeding. When a person is prescribed an anti-platelet mediation, it is an attempt to stop aggregation that might occur inside of the body and form dangerous blood clots. Common anti-platelet medications include aspirin and Plavix®.

Anticoagulant therapy involves patients receiving blood tests to make sure blood clotting is reduced enough.
Anticoagulant therapy involves patients receiving blood tests to make sure blood clotting is reduced enough.

Anticoagulant therapy, and sometimes anti-platelet therapy, may be used when people have certain heart problems. There is significant need to prevent the possibility of blood clots forming, which may be more likely if people have a an artificial valve or shunt, or if they have other conditions like deep vein thrombosis, atherosclerosis, or atrial fibrillation. Therapy usually involves taking anticoagulants like warfarin daily, and people must have blood tests frequently to make sure blood clotting is reduced enough, but not too much. Many people go to anticoagulation or warfarin clinics to have their blood levels monitored. There are some risks to this treatment, particularly if things like head injury occur, but with some watchfulness, taking things like warfarin can greatly decrease risk of stroke or pulmonary embolism.

Many doctors advise that a patient take an aspirin if she suspects she's having a heart attack or stroke.
Many doctors advise that a patient take an aspirin if she suspects she's having a heart attack or stroke.

Sometimes an anticoagulant medication is used for a very short time period after a person has had heart surgery, or directly after a stroke. Anti-platelet drugs also have some use in this respect. In general, anticoagulants tend to prevent blood clotting more than do anti-platelet meds, yet anti-platelet medications are extremely helpful. Most physicians usually advise taking an aspirin when people suspect they are having a heart attack or stroke, as this may significantly reduce damage.

For those on anticoagulant medications, even minor scrapes and cuts may require medical help to stop bleeding.
For those on anticoagulant medications, even minor scrapes and cuts may require medical help to stop bleeding.
Aspirin is a common anticoagulant.
Aspirin is a common anticoagulant.
Heparin is often used to flush central line catheters to prevent blood from clotting in the tubes.
Heparin is often used to flush central line catheters to prevent blood from clotting in the tubes.
Patients suffering from atrial fibrillation may have an increased risk of developing blood clots.
Patients suffering from atrial fibrillation may have an increased risk of developing blood clots.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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