Digitalis Drugs

A group of plant-derived drugs used to treat certain heart disorders

Common drugs

  • Digitoxin

  • Digoxin

Digitalis drugs belong to a group of drugs called cardiac glycosides, the most commonly used of which is digoxin. Digitalis drugs may be used to treat chronic heart failure, in which the heart fails to pump blood effectively. These drugs increase the strength of the heart’s contraction. They also slow an abnormally rapid heart rate and allow the heart to pump more blood with each beat. This results in improved blood flow.

Digitalis drugs may also be used to treat a very rapid, irregular heartbeat, such as atrial fibrillation. However, in this condition, digitalis drugs may slow the heart rate without correcting the irregularity.

How are they used?

You will normally be prescribed oral digitalis drugs. You may be given a large initial dose so that the drug becomes effective quickly. If your heart failure is life-threatening, very rapid treatment will be needed immediately, and the drug may be administered by infusion into a vein.

While you are taking a digitalis drug, your doctor will monitor your heart rate regularly. He or she may also arrange for you to have blood tests to check the levels of the drug in your blood. You may need to take a digitalis drug for a prolonged period.

What are the side effects?

You are most likely to experience side effects from taking the drug if the dose you are taking is too high. These side effects often develop slowly and may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and headache. You may also experience other side effects such as loss of appetite and fatigue. Visual disturbances, such as seeing coloured haloes around lights, may occur, and in rare cases, drowsiness, confusion, hallucinations, and delirium may also be experienced. You should report any of these side effects to your doctor without delay.


Contact your doctor immediately if you experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, or visual disturbances while you are taking the digitalis drug digoxin.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top