poison pill bottle

Combining a common antibiotic with an even more common blood pressure medicine can result in sudden death. The interaction can lead to dangerously high levels of potassium (hyperkalemia) in the body, which in turn can trigger fatal heart rhythm abnormalities. Sadly, there is not adequate awareness about the deadly consequences of this drug interaction.

Deadly Drug Interactions:

We have been alarmed about incompatible drug combinations for more than 40 years.

In the first edition of The People’s Pharmacy (1976) we wrote:

“Drug interactions are the Achilles heel of the medical profession. The laws of nature no longer hold true. This is a crazy world where one plus one equals three, where down may very well be up and surely pigs have wings. In fact, mixing medicines is very much like playing Russian roulette. You never know when a particular combination will produce a lethal outcome.”

In the 1970s there were no computers for physicians or pharmacists to use to check for dangerous interactions and there were few references available to check out a possible problem. More often than not, health professionals relied upon memory to try to avoid such complications. It was an impossible task. No human can possibly remember all the dangerous drug combinations.

Now, we have computers as close as our smart phones. Automated systems check on interactions before a doctor can finalize a prescription and before a pharmacist can dispense it. The trouble is, physicians and pharmacists often ignore and override drug interaction alerts, especially those they deem relatively unimportant.

That may be what has been happening with a deadly combination between a commonly prescribed antibiotic and an even more commonly prescribed blood pressure medicine.

Co-Trimoxazole (Trimethoprim + Sulfamethoxazole):

Co-trimoxazole is a widely used antibiotic. It is estimated that roughly 20 million prescriptions are filled for this drug each year. It goes by many names. Bactrim and Septra were the original brand names for this drug. These days, generic forms are dispensed as co-trimoxazole or the combination trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole (abbreviated TMP-SMX or TMP-SMZ). This combination antibiotic is prescribed for urinary tract, respiratory, digestive and skin infections, to name just a few of its many applications.

RAS (Renin-Angiotensin System) Inhibitors (aka ARBs and ACEi):

These are among the most popular blood pressure drugs in the pharmacy. Such drugs are also prescribed to treat congestive heart failure (CHF), heart disease and kidney disease. Experts estimate that over 250 million prescriptions are written for angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) and ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors. Some of the most common names are:

ACE Inhibitors

  • Benazepril (Lotensin)
  • Captopril (Capoten)
  • Enalapril (Vasotec)
  • Lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril)
  • Quinapril (Accupril)
  • Ramipril (Altace)

ARBs (Angiotensin Receptor Blockers)

  • Candesartan (Atacand)
  • Irbesartan (Avapro)
  • Losartan (Cozaar)
  • Olmesartan (Benicar)
  • Telmisartan (Micardis)
  • Valsartan (Diovan)

These drugs are also included in many combination products. Here are just a few examples: Avalide, Capozide, Exforge, Hyzaar, Lotrel, Micardis HCT, Tribenzor, Twynsta and Valturna.

The Scary Story Behind this Deadly Drug Discovery:

Canadian researchers have been concerned about the combination of the antibiotic co-trimoxazole with ARBs or ACEIs for years. They tracked 100,000 people who had received a prescription for one of these blood pressure medications. More than one in ten had also received a prescription for the antibiotic in question. Those who got the combo were almost seven times more likely to be hospitalized for problems due to high potassium compared to people taking different antibiotics (Archives of Internal Medicine, June 28, 2010). They noted then that:

“These findings support the notion of a potentially life-threatening drug interaction between trimethoprim and inhibitors of the renin-angiotensin aldosterone system.”

Research Confirms This Deadly Risk:

This fall the Canadian researchers closed the loop on this deadly drug interaction (BMJ, Oct. 30, 2014). They searched the Canadian medical database and identified over a million people who had taken either an ARB or an ACE inhibitor during the 17-year study period. They looked for cases of sudden death and discovered that patients who had also received co-trimoxazole were significantly more likely to have died within 14 days than those who received the penicillin-type antibiotic amoxicillin.

Their Conclusion:

“We found that use of co-trimoxazole was associated with an increased risk of sudden death in older patients taking angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers. We speculate that this association reflects sudden death from co-trimoxazole induced hyperkalemia in a vulnerable group of patients. The importance of our findings is underscored by the fact that co-trimoxazole is prescribed to millions of patients taking angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers. Sudden death in these patients is likely to be misattributed to underlying cardiovascular disease, rather than hyperkalemia.”

Sudden Death Ignored:

Did you catch that last sentence? What it means is that when an older person dies suddenly while taking co-trimoxazole while on a medication like lisinopril or valsartan, no one will figure out why. The cause of death will likely be assumed to be of “natural causes” such as a heart attack. Nowhere on the death certificate will it say, “This patient died because of a drug interaction mistake.”

Did you also note that the authors said millions of patients receive this antibiotic in combination with ARBs or ACE inhibitors? In other words, an awful lot of people are vulnerable to this potentially deadly drug combination.

The Bottom Line:

Finally, we checked with two of the best drug interaction resources available on the web. We wondered what they said about this problem. One warned that potassium levels may increase and therefore should be monitored. The other seemed even less concerned. Instead of putting this in the “Avoid” or “Caution” category, it merely listed this interaction as one that should be monitored because of a possible risk of hyperkalemia.

That means it is likely to be ignored by many health professionals. They get warnings like that dozens of times a day. There is even a name for this situation: “alert fatigue.” It means that physicians and pharmacists override the computerized warnings because they get so darned many.

A hyperkalemic crisis can come on so suddenly that even if a conscientious doctor were monitoring serum potassium levels every few months that might not be frequently enough to catch a problem in time. The Canadian researchers reported that many of the patients they were tracking died suddenly within one to two weeks of starting this combination. More recent research has found that people with poor kidney function are particularly likely to suffer from this interaction (Internal Medicine, March 1, 2016).

Learn More:

If this example has you concerned, you may want to read more details in our chapter “Drug Interactions Can Be Deadly.” There are 11 tips for preventing dangerous drug interactions at the end of the section. You can find it in our book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. We assure you that this interaction is just the tip of the iceberg!

If people you love take multiple medications, this book might save their lives.

Last reviewed: 6/9/2018

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  1. Meg
    Maryland
    Reply

    I am an attorney who dealt w cases of medical mistakes, so I always double check everything (to the annoyance of my physicians). Professionally and personally, I have seen hundreds of physician or pharmacy mistakes, most dangerous, and some fatal. Doctors AND pharmacists are so overworked these days. Despite their best efforts, they just can’t learn every possible risk associated with a drug. As examples: One client called his doctor more than once, concerned about a significant rash while on a sulfa drug, only to be told to keep taking it. He wound up in the hospital burn unit with Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Ultimately, all his skin peeled off his body, and he died after days of agony.

    Another picked up an “antibiotic” for her toddler, which turned out to actually be Demerol- had she not called the pharmacist to double check, her child would likely be dead. One was prescribed a heavy dose of Coreg (BP drug) together w/ amiodorone (anti-arrhythmic drug). Despite complaining of a heart rate around 49-52, significant heart pain, and inability to even climb a flight of steps, he was told that it was not a problem to combine the two meds. Did some research, and sure enough the two should not be taken together – high risk of a fatal heart rate slowing. One was injected with the wrong drug at her doctors office by a nurse who walked into the wrong examining room. I have seen so many mistakes over the years.

    Two pharmacists in my Law school class told me (back in the 1980’s) that doctors only got one semester on drugs in MED school, so always ask your pharmacist about side effects and interactions. When a medical professional (at Hospital or office) attempts to give you a shot or pill, ASK! And to avoid pharmacy mistakes, when you pick up a prescription, check to make sure the label actually says it IS what the Dr prescribed; and always look up the pill image on the web to make sure it matches the name!

  2. April
    York pa
    Reply

    Is atenolol safe to take with bactrim?

  3. marian
    buffalo
    Reply

    It seems bactrim (trimethoprim) issue commonly prescribed when they find bacteria in the urine sample-its a heads up for me as I am taking lisinopril.

  4. LI
    Reply

    One thing that concerns me here is that several of the previous commentators seem to think the solution to the blood pressure drug and antibiotic dangerous interaction is to stop taking their blood pressure medication while they are taking the antibiotic.

    I am not a healthcare professional such as a doctor or nurse, but I do take a blood pressure medication and am well aware that one should never abruptly discontinue it. It would seem that the better solution to the above dilemma would be to ask the doctor to prescribe a different antibiotic.

  5. Fran
    Mooresville, N C.
    Reply

    Thank you People’s Pharmacy, especially for this heads-up. You two do a tremendous public service and I read you daily on computer and once a week in the Charlotte Observer. God Bless you both.

  6. Tammy
    Portland
    Reply

    I think the People’s Pharmacy blog should be required reading for all doctors and pharmacists!

    Thank you Joe and Terry for all you do! Your wisdom is priceless!!

  7. Gary
    Utah
    Reply

    When your doctor prescribes any new medication and you have negative reactions: Stop the medication and contact your doctor and if he or she does not consider the side affects and insists that you take the medication anyway: Change doctors: If I had not stopped taking medications wherein I was experiencing serious side affects, I would be dead, dead, dead:

  8. Michael
    Clayton NC
    Reply

    My question would be, is it possible to pause taking valsartan (which I do take with good effect) if I needed to take Bactrin for example? How long before and after taking the Bactrin would be safe? I think I could handle a couple weeks with a 20 point rise in BP to solve a bad infection.

  9. Bill
    Katy, TX
    Reply

    I had been on benazepril for about 20 years when my urologist gave me Bactrim. Subsequently I fell down about 4 times. Finally went to my GP, and he personally drove me to a hospital. I was there for 5 days and had drop foot when I got out. That lasted for a couple of months. That was 4 years ago. I still have gait problems and poor balance, despite a lot of physical therapy. People’s Pharmacy covered this drug issue, I believe in Dec. of 2014, several months after my sickness. I gave a copy of the original research on the problem to my urologist.

  10. sura
    Reply

    I shall be wary of this, since many people take blood pressure drugs. My mother died when the interaction of Detrol (incontinence drug) and Benadryl stopped her bowel function completely. I only found this out a few months later when I read an article about this drug interaction and realized why it happened. She was a textbook case of it, but apparently it is not known to most physicians. In any case, her bowels stopped, perforated, and she died of sepsis.

  11. Gerri F.
    Reply

    I survived the Lisinopril and Bactrim deadly combination more than once. I felt terrible every time I took bactrim when I was on Lisinopril. I thought it was an allergic reaction to bactrim until I read this article. Deadly combination! Yes, doctors miss a lot. I am no longer taking Lisinopril but I had it noted in my file that I am allergic to bactrim to avoid other slip ups like this. It pays to read and subscribe to People’s Pharmacy

  12. Erin
    San Jose, CA
    Reply

    I had a strange experience with a strange reaction many years ago, and now I wonder if it was due to what I’ve just read here! I was on Lisopril and given a sulpha drug for some infection. After drinking a cup of coffee I had terrible vertigo, and since we were away from home at our daughters’ swim meet, I asked my husband to take me home. We drove for 5 minutes with no improvement and was so scared, I asked him to call 911. The EMTs seemed most unconcerned, and I think they thought I was making something up. By the time we got to the hospital the feeling abated, and I’ll never know for sure what it was, but I’ve never experienced it again since. I always tell doctors “I’m allergic to sulfa drugs.” That was the only thing that was different in my life.

    Thank you for printing this article.

  13. Sherrie D.
    TN
    Reply

    Will it stop the interaction and be safe if you stop taking the BP medicine while taking the Bactrim etc.? You usually only take the antibiotic for about a week, and maybe it wouldn’t hurt to stop taking the BP medicine while taking it. ??

  14. John
    mebane, nc
    Reply

    I hope someone does a study on how Lisinopril reacts with Ciprofloxacin. Last year I had a UTI infection and was prescribed Cipro. I take a daily dose of Lisinopril (20mg) and a 300mg allopurinol. After the third day on cipro I was struck down twice, like a bolt of lightning, once falling on my head while walking and the second time while using my computer. I had no idea what caused this reaction. I immediately ceased using the cipro. I’m 80 years old and had used cipro successfully in prior years. Next time I need a antibiotic I’m going to hold off on using lisinopril and allopruinol. Hope that a study is soon done on the interactions. This article in People’s Pharmacy is life saving.

  15. Patricia
    Virginia
    Reply

    I was prescribed this antibiotic despite being on Losartan. The ‘physician seemed not to be aware of the drug interaction. The pharmacist essentially said he had no responsibility to question the doctor’s request. I had to be the one to identify the problem and ask for a different antibiotic. I do not know why I, a lay person, have to constantly review the decisions being made by medical professionals. This is their job.

  16. Diane
    SC
    Reply

    I am stopping my Lisinopril while taking this antibiotic for sure. & days total. Scary!

  17. randel
    texas
    Reply

    Good Lord! I dropped off my ‘script only to receive a phone call from pharmacy asking if Drs knew Im on benazepril because the interaction has been known to cause sudden death! So the pharmacist may have saved my life!

  18. Linda W
    Texas
    Reply

    Hello, my 72 year old brother was given SMS tmp and took blood thinners! Last Wednesday he said he had pains in his stomach on Thursday! On Friday he began to vomit but continued to take his medication!

    This Monday morning March 13th my mother called me screaming something was wrong with my brother! I arrived about 15 minutes later and he had passed away! He was laying on his stomach on the floor and had died! Help!

  19. Kwasi
    Ghana
    Reply

    Combination of Trimethoprim and an ACEI or ARBs is likely to be done bearing in mind of the high prescribing rate of the individual medicines. Pharmacists should therefore readily make available information on common deadly interactions such as this to healthcare providers and users.

  20. Janet
    UK
    Reply

    My husband had a cardiac arrest and died 20 days after being prescribed Trimethorprim. He was already taking Lisinopril.
    The post mortem concluded he had atheroma in two of his cardiac arteries and had suffered a heart attack. There was no mention of possible drug interactions although he had had no prior heart symptoms.

  21. John
    Florida
    Reply

    A dangerous combination … and many doctors don’t want to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. I take an ACE inhibitor, and was prescribed Bactrim for an infection. Within a week I was close to passing out any time I got in the sun from super low blood pressure. When I went to my doctor to report that I thought I was having a serious side effect to the drug, I was literally told that Bactrim has no serious side effects. Nonsense.

    I was then checked over and told that my liver was failing, my kidneys were failing, I had renal failure, and I was suddenly diabetic. Thankfully, while the doctor did not want to admit to any possibilities of problems with the Bactrim, they did do a little more checking, and thankfully told me to throw away the rest of the prescription … and within a week all the problems had disappeared.

    I do not object to the existence and use of the drug… it has done a lot of good… but I do think the interaction between Bactrim and these categories of common medicines need to be further highlighted. Those were some pretty severe failures. And since I have never been found to be allergic to any drugs, previously, I find it far more likely to be a drug interaction problem than an allergy problem.

    Thanks for helping to spread the word on this interaction.

  22. Barbara
    Stedman NC
    Reply

    I am taking Losartan for high blood pressure. I am having great difficulty with my legs swelling especially the left one. I think Losartan adds to the swelling. Do you have information about legs swelling? Thank you for keeping us informed.

  23. Susan
    Michigan
    Reply

    This is one of many reasons i’m in despair about health care. I know people–myself included, but 40 years ago–where it definitely saved their lives. But it’s a crapshoot these days.

  24. HRH
    Ohio
    Reply

    Wow, you all make me scared to take my lisinopril. :(

  25. Sherry REIVER
    Waxhaw, NC
    Reply

    Thank you once again for letting us know the dangers of interactions to specific drugs. It is a sad day that doctors don’t know this and we the patients, if knowledgeable enough, will have to inform them. Unfortunately, as always, they will just poo-poo it as nonsense.

    • Chris
      United States
      Reply

      You still taking it? I’m on 20mgs a day. I also take 100-150mgs of atenolol a day to stable my blood pressure and stable my heart rate. Ive been on atenolol since the late 1990’s and the Lisinopril for aprx 4-5 years now. Suddenly a few weeks ago I have developed a nagging cough that sometimes taste lIke blood. It also sometimes hurts in my sternum area. If I get up fast or lift something that isn’t even that heavy it will hurt me on my back left side behind my rib cage close to midway down the ribs. Thanks so much for listening. I appreciate your time as expertise. Chris

  26. Calista Ruga
    Dorothy NJ
    Reply

    Thanks for letting us know about this drug interaction problem. We have a mentally challenged child who is on one of the Ace inhibitors & she does not tell us how she feels when taking a medication. It is the third time you have put warnings out there which have directly affected us & we muchly appreciate it. The Dr. took her off 2 of the drugs that had serious side affects & at first gave us a hard time, but then the FDA pulled them as well. Keep up the good work.

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