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J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 1996;27 Suppl 3:S49-54.

Aspects of tolerability of centrally acting antihypertensive drugs.

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  • 1Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Foresterhill, Scotland.


Traditional centrally acting antihypertensives have been associated with a high incidence of adverse effects and are no longer recommended as first-line therapy. The newer imidazoline receptor agonists must overcome this reputation if they are to gain recognition as potential first-line agents for hypertension. Methyldopa, a centrally acting alpha(2)-agonist, is characterized by a number of serious adverse reactions that limit its use. Although unpredictable idiosyncratic or hypersensitivity reactions are uncommon, these include hepatitis, myocarditis, and hemolytic anaemia. Less serious problems such as abnormal liver function tests, positive Coombs test, drug-induced fever, and pancreatitis also occur. Central side effects include drowsiness, fatigue, lethargy, sedation, depression, psychotic reactions, nasal stuffiness, impotence, and exacerbation of Parkinsonism. In hypertensive men, methyldopa is less well tolerated than either captopril or propranolol, and up to 20% of patients discontinue therapy because of adverse effects. Clonidine acts primarily as an alpha(2)-agonist but also acts as an agonist at imidazoline receptors in the rostroventrolateral medulla. It is equipotent to most other antihypertensives but is considerably less well-tolerated in comparative trials. The principal adverse effects of clonidine are drowsiness, sedation, lethargy and dry mouth. Reserpine acts primarily by depleting central catecholamine neurotransmitter stores. It was very extensively used in early hypertension trials, but its central side effects of sedation, nasal stuffiness, and severe depression are now considered so undesirable that the drug is seldom prescribed. The imidazoline (I1) agonists moxonidine and rilmenidine act selectively and have very little central alpha(2)-agonist activity. In comparative studies against placebo and other reference antihypertensives, the only adverse effect consistently associated with these drugs was dry mouth (approximate placebo-corrected incidence 10%). Sedation was not pronounced. Withdrawal syndromes are complex pathophysiologic processes and occur with a variety of antihypertensive drugs. Cessation of therapy with clonidine and, to a lesser extent, methyldopa may result in a severe withdrawal syndrome characterized by restlessness, sweating, anxiety, tremor, palpitations, and headache. There may be a rapid rise in blood pressure, often with a true "rebound" to higher than pretreatment levels. Plasma and urinary catecholamine levels are increased, and fatalities have been reported. It is important to stress that such a syndrome has not been recorded, in animal or human studies, with either moxonidine or rilmenidine.

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