The People's Perspective on Medicine

A Completely New and Unexpected Statin Side Effect

A surprising statin side effect has just been reported. How is it possible that after more than three decades we are still discovering statin side effects?
A variety of statin drugs

Statin drugs are widely used to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. The last time we checked, atorvastatin was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States (114 million bottles dispensed in 2018). Simvastatin is also very popular (46 million dispensed prescriptions). Statins have been on the market since 1987. One would think that every possible statin side effect would have been discovered by now. Hang onto your hat. A new statin side effect was recently revealed in the British Journal of Pharmacology (online, Oct. 8, 2019). Staph skin infections are now linked to statins.

Statins and Staph

Scientists in Australia report that people taking statins are more susceptible to skin and soft tissue infections (SSTIs). They reviewed prescription data from more than 228,000 veterans and war widows over the span of 12 years.

Because Australia has a very robust database of medication use, the researchers were able to track who took what between January 1, 2000 thru December 31, 2012. First, they looked for statins (atorvastatin, fluvastatin, pravastatin, rosuvastatin and simvastatin). Next, they cross referenced diabetes medicines (insulins, insulin analogues and oral blood glucose lowering drugs). Finally, they checked for antibiotics used to treat staph infections (dicloxacillin and flucloxacillin).

The people who were taking statins were more susceptible to staph SSTIs. The increased relative risk of skin and soft tissue infections was roughly 40%. The authors note:

Staphylococcus aureus is a major cause of bacterial skin and soft tissue infections (SSTIs), which are prevalent amongst different age groups and may range from superficial to deep‐seated infections, consuming considerable hospital resources.”

Why a Staph Statin Side Effect?

The Australian investigators offer some possibilities for the staph and statin side effect. Because statins have an anti-inflammatory effect the authors report that:

“Clinical data show that statins inhibit the induction of Th1 and Th17 cells, and may increase Treg cells within 4–12 weeks, suggesting that statin users may be more susceptible to pathogenic infections.”

The authors note that:

“The Th1 and Th17 cells are responsible for mounting the host’s defence against pathogens, resulting in inflammatory responses.”

The researchers also report that:

“The skin functions as a crucial permeability barrier, providing innate immunity by protecting the host from noxious agents such as bacterial pathogens.”

The creation of cholesterol is crucial for the skin to function normally. If statins lower cholesterol levels in the skin the “protective barrier function” may be compromised. Cholesterol itself appears to provide “immunoprotective effects against infections.”

Staph skin and soft tissue infections are a potentially new statin side effect. No one should stop taking a statin (or any drug for that matter) without first checking with the prescribing physician. There will need to be additional research to determine whether this is a real complication of statins. But this isn’t the first statin side effect to be discovered long after these drugs were introduced.

Statins and Diabetes:

The Australian researchers also report that statins increased the risk for diabetes. They note that statins may lower vitamin D levels, increase insulin resistance, reduce beta cell function in the pancreas (where insulin is made) and disrupt the gut microbiome. These unanticipated statin actions could all impact blood sugar control in a negative way.

You can learn more about diabetes as a statin side effect at this link:

Do Statins Cause Diabetes? Many MDs Wish It Weren’t So!

Another Statin Side Effect: Cataracts?

Early in the development of statins there were concerns that statins might cause cataracts. In the early days of statin prescribing there were references to eye issues with lovastatin (Mevacor) in the Physicians’ Desk Reference (1994):

“There was a high prevalence of baseline lenticular [lens] opacities in the patient population s included in the early clinical trials with lovastatin. During these trials the appearance of new opacities was noted in both the lovastatin and placebo groups.”

Under ADVERSE REACTIONS for the eye the PDR noted:

“progression of cataracts (lens opacities)”

A similar statement can be found in the entry for simvastatin (Zocor). 

The official prescribing information for simvastatin notes:

“There were cataracts in female rats after two years of treatment with 50 and 100 mg/kg/day (22 and 25 times the human AUC at 80 mg/day, respectively) and in dogs after three months at 90 mg/kg/day (19 times) and at two years at 50 mg/kg/day (5 times).”

The official prescribing information for lovastatin states:

“Cataracts were seen in dogs treated for 11 and 28 weeks at 180 mg/kg/day and 1 year at 60 mg/kg/day.”

This statin side effect was pretty much ignored for decades. Then research revealed that there was indeed a connection between statins and cataracts in people.

Statins and Cataracts: Why Did It Take So Long to Uncover This Connection?

Doctors and Statin Side Effects:

Many physicians reject the idea that statins cause side effects. There was even a study published in The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology (March, 2014) that concluded: 

“…only a small minority of symptoms reported on statins are genuinely due to the statins: almost all reported symptoms occurred just as frequently when patients were administered placebo.”

You can read more about this study at this link:

Statin Side Effects Are All In Your Head! Really?

When we have talked about a statin side effect on the radio or reported it in our syndicated newspaper column, some doctors get quite annoyed. A cardiologist even suggested that reports of statin side effects were fake medical news (JAMA Cardiology, June 26, 2019): 

“…the same fake medical news and fearmongering also plague the cardiovascular world through relentless attacks on statins. Now websites, books, and even antistatin documentaries spread false information about statins.”

You can read more at this link:

Are Statin Side Effects Fake Medical News?

Your Thoughts?

We recognize that people with heart disease benefit from statin drugs. The persistent controversy involves those who take such drugs for “primary prevention.” In other words, people who are otherwise healthy but have elevated cholesterol levels.

A recent article challenges the conventional cardiology consensus that almost everyone benefits from statins. The article titled “Statins for Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease” was published in the BMJ (Oct. 16, 2019). The authors note that guidelines keep increasing the number of people eligible for statin treatment. That also means a huge number of people will get a statin for which they will not receive any benefit. Here is a point made by the BMJ researchers:

“The broadening of the diagnostic criteria over this period meant that increasingly lower risk people became eligible for treatment and the number of people that would need to be treated (NNT [number needed to treat]) to prevent one major cardiovascular event also went up substantially: 40 people at the lowest risk in the 1987 guidelines compared with 400 of those at the lowest risk in the 2016 guidelines.”

Put another way, 399 people would not benefit from a statin under the latest guidelines so that one person would avoid a major cardiovascular event. How do those odds strike you?

We would like to learn from you. Please share your own experience with statins in the comment section below. Do you think reports of statin side effects are fake medical news? If you have done well on statins we would like to hear from you as well.

Do you appreciate The People’s Pharmacy? We have been your drug watchdog for more than 40 years. Ever since Google has made it harder for people to find our content we have lost most of our visitors. Please share articles you think might be informative. If you find our efforts worthwhile, please support our work either by making a donation or going ad free. Thank you for your assistance. It’s what keeps our syndicated radio show and website afloat.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Show 1085: The Statin Standoff and New Drugs for the Heart
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Cardiologists don't agree on how well statin cholesterol-lowering drugs work to prevent heart disease. What do you know about the statin standoff?

Show 1085: The Statin Standoff and New Drugs for the Heart
Citations
  • Byrne, P., et al, "Statins for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease," BMJ, Oct. 16, 2019, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5674
  • Humphrey, H. T., et al, "A sequence symmetry analysis of the interrelationships between statins, diabetes and skin infections," British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Oct. 8, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1111/bcp.14077
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On Rosuvastatin 20 mg in May 2019 as a cautionary measure. After 5 months the side effects were: Swollen feet, vertigo, sluggishness, mental fog, weight gain. A general feeling of walking through quicksand.

Stopped taking the medication October 1. My energy returned in about 10 days. And all other side effects have vanished.

I took my 93 year old father to the heart doctor four days ago and demanded he be taken off of this medication which he had been on for 3 years. We will see.

AMEN! Also doctors need to be informed of centuries old, proven natural treatments.

I am convinced that my muscle weakness in my legs and cramps at night are due to the statin I’m taking. I have been on four different statins. Walking any distance of more than a block outside is a thing of the past. I do water walking and adaptive cross fit .

I quote your statin article: The persistent controversy involves those who take such drugs for “primary prevention.” In other words, people who are otherwise healthy but have elevated cholesterol levels.” The same thing occurs with blood pressure medications. The three times I have been hospitalized with viral infections which caused breathing difficulties because of asthma, I have had doctors tell me that I MUST go on medicine for the rest of my life because I had high blood pressure. When I pointed out that my normal blood pressure was 120 over 74 (I am 78 years old) and it was only high if I was sick, they said they did not care and continued injecting me with steroids, giving me nebulizer treatments (both of which raise blood pressure) while at the same time taking a BP reading. Are they getting kickbacks for prescribing? Or are they just one-sided in their thinking?

Does this mean that I should stop taking Lipitor a certain number of days before I go in for my operation so as not to risk getting a staph infection ?

I was unable to tolerate any of the statins so I just decided to take my chances. Now I am glad that I did so. I have had a DNA analysis on my drug tolerances, and I should certainly have avoided them. Geneticaly I am not at risk from CVA due to atherosclerosis, and I should avoid statins. People need to trust themselves more and question their doctors.

My doctor put me on statins around one year ago.Since then,my glucose has increased 33% and my A1C is now 6.4 from 5.7. No weight gain or lifestyle changes. This motivates me to exercise harder and eat even better to get off all these crappy drugs!

PS=My doctor states there is no correlation. :(

Around 4 months after taking 80mg Atorvastatin I had a routine blood test which resulted in extremely high reading of my LFT – ALT of 1857! It should have been around 20. Perhaps this was the best thing that could have happened to me, as I started to research statins and, suffice to say, I have not taken another one.

They are not a free ride; the side effects are terrible; and had I been told at the outset what the benefit/risks were I could have made an informed decision. Lifestyle changes (yoga, meditation, reiki); the elimination of sugar, processed food, beige carbs etc along with following a low carb (lchf) diet have, in my opinion, done more for me than any prescription drug – especially the poisonous statin.

Very interesting that the doctor listed in this article who says statin side effects are “fake news” raked in over $84,000 from the pharmaceutical industry in 2018: https://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/doctors/pid/1234293.

Statins seem to be useless for many people. I, for one, am grateful for all the information coming out proving statin drugs have side effects that people ought to be paying attention to BEFORE agreeing to take them.
Our bodies and brains NEED cholesterol to function, and interfering with that can be harmful.

Nortin Hadler at UNC recommended a maximum NNT of 50 in one of his books I read. His rationale for it was partly an economic one, but to be sure exposure to side effects was his main concern, and the quality of data behind any decision making.

NNT isn’t just a locked in number though. If a treatment option is not invasive, not expensive, and truly has only minor side effects gleaned from high quality studies, then a higher NNT seems reasonable.

I don’t think the physicians I have partnered with in regard to my own health were attending to NNT. Mostly they were trying to provide the best treatments they were able to learn about.

Pharma works really hard to be the go-to source for information. I don’t see a lot of evidence that they deserve the respect we accord them as a source of treatment protocols, etc.

My statin side effects? Let me count the ways…
1) Muscle cramps, pain, and weakness
2) Numbness and tingling
3) Shortness of breath
4) Calcification of my coronary arteries and valves
5) Increased joint pain
6) Rheumatoid arthritis
7) Psoriatic arthritis
8) Peripheral neuropathy in feet, legs, and right hand
9) Polyneuropathy
10) Denervation atrophy of muscles
11) Exercise intolerance
12) Cataract at age 63

Although I was never diagnosed, I think I have mitochondrial dysfunction too, the root of many of the above side effects. I may also have the infamous “ALS-like” disorder sometimes linked to statins. My journey started almost 10 years ago, and simply quitting the statin didn’t stop this hellish parade. My health is slowly worsening with no end in sight.

Patients’ side effects are routinely dismissed by doctors as anecdotal, often blamed on aging or other health problems, and are rarely reported to the US FDA. Their Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) website is supposed to list all the side effects and the rate of occurrence, but it’s only as accurate as doctors allow it to be. As patients, we’re left to figure out what happened to us and deal with it ourselves, seldom with any help from our doctors.

I had a heart attack in January of 2019. Cardiologist prescribed atorvastatin, 40 mg, 1/nite. My PCP was ecstatic as he had been recommending for several years. “See, high cholesterol does cause heart disease,” he said. I pointed out that correlation does not equal causation, as statins also correlate with diabetes.

I have had no discernible adverse side effects from atorvastatin but I plan to make a case to get off it after a year for the reasons you cite.

I greatly appreciate People’s Pharmacy for the information you provide that I likely would never get otherwise (even knowing you are not infallible).

For me, this is just one more of many nails in Big Pharma’s coffin. I am 70 years old, exercise, eat smart/healthy, take no medication. If my doctor told me I needed a medication, I would not take it unless I confirmed for myself great efficacy with negligible damage. I learned recently (from you and elsewhere) about the damaging side effects of anticholinergic medicines (a few of which I unknowingly took over the years).

How about statins, anticoagulants, and blood pressure meds associated with eosinophilic fasciitis (EF)?

I took this drug combo for four years after a stroke in February 2014. After many wrong turns based on my increasingly bad symptoms, I was finally diagnosed with EF in January 2019. But no cause was established as to why my eosinophil level went crazy.

I am off the blood meds now and am being treated with methotrexate and prednisone with some success.

Definitely NOT fake news. Several years ago I took simvastatin over several years. Yes, my cholesterol went down, and during this time I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. No family history of diabetes. When the muscle and joint aches got unbearable and disrupted my sleep every night I stopped taking it. Surprise! After a few weeks of not taking the statin the aches went away. My cholesterol did go back up. One doctor suggested I start taking red yeast rice and CoQ10. That helped keep the cholesterol down but still above the line.

Fast forward to this year, and my current physician talked me into using rosuvastatin, saying that it may be better tolerated. Well, the aches and pains are back, and my A1c jumped up right after starting the rosuvastatin. I will likely stop taking it and go back to red yeast rice and CoQ10 even though red yeast rice could produce some muscle pain, but that was not my experience before.

While on Lipitor my leg muscles and bones ached horribly. Worse, my memory was affected. It got to the point that I could not finish a sentence without difficulty. I stopped taking Lipitor and after a week or so, my memory would become normal. Started it again, got bad again. I finally told my doctor, and he told me that I could stop Lipitor, and I was back to normal after about a month.

I guess if I were a dog, taking nine times my dosage, I’d be concerned. Otherwise, this is nonsense.

Ronald,

I completely understand your perspective. It seems as if cancer studies employing high doses are irrelevant to humans. And yet researchers have been doing this for decades. Such testing is not arbitrary or frivolous (or to quote you, “nonsense”). We rely upon cancer signals in such tests to determine if there is a risk to humans.
We cannot do such tests on people. Because it can take many years (even decades) to determine if a chemical causes cancer, we need some accelerated testing system to alert us to risks. Think back estrogen and breast cancer. Millions of women were exposed for decades before the Women’s Health Initiative uncovered a connection.
Bottom line: until there is a better way to test for cancer risk we will have to use animal models. You may find this article of interest:

https://www.peoplespharmacy.com/articles/does-your-medicine-pose-a-cancer-risk/

My cholesterol went down 106 points with diet on my last lab test. Triglycerides also down YET my doctor still insisted I needed statin drugs. What a scam when I was just a few points above the goal of 199.

Had tremendous muscle pain from Lipitor, doctor told me it was all in my head till blood test showed muscle deterioration. Now he has the same problem. Serves him right!

I was on atorvastatin for a couple of years, but can’t say I experienced any noticeable side effects. I switched primary physicians when my doctor left the practice. My current doctor is much younger and more attuned to the latest research on cholesterol measurements within the context of overall risk. So I’m gratefully off the statins.

However, my doctor did say that one positive effect from taking statins was that they help reduce inflammation in the body and blood. With my osteoarthritis, that’s a temptation to resume it!

My doctor gave me Statins, and I found I had terrible side effects with each of them. Finally we agreed I should not take them, Found “Garlique’ and started taking it, my cholesterol levels are now normal and so is my blood pressure, after years on high blood pressure even on medication. Finally got off of some but still take two, I would like to be off them too,

Statins are huge money for big Parma. We all need “clean data”, unsponsored by anyone/entity making a profit. I believe in “shared decision making” with my patients; give them the information, risks and benefits, then let the patient decide.

I’ve been on simvastatin prescribed by my internist for about ten years. My cholesterol level was not super high but was elevated. It went down quickly and has stayed within normal range ever since and I have had none of the usual side effects. I have had cataracts but at 71 I’m not too surprised since I’ve lived in Florida since I was 3 and spent a great deal of time in the sun.

Have had high cholesterol since my early 50’s. Tried multiple statins and all had side effects (aching legs) so quit taking. I went to a cardiologist for a full work up about 10 years ago and he said even with high cholesterol I only had a 3% risk factor for heart disease. I still have high cholesterol (including high HDL), am now 70, and am in excellent health. Thanks for all the information you have provided to help me resist the easy answer.

As a pharmacist I have had numerous complaints from patients about muscle cramping, pain and weakness caused by statins. Taking the supplement CoQ10 helps some people since the statins decrease the natural production of this coenzyme. My mother also suffered from muscle pain and weakness while on a statin. She stopped the statin and the muscle symptoms stopped. Another relative developed rhabdomyolysis while on a statin which damaged her kidneys and led to dialysis. Those who believe that reports of statin side effects are fake news are denying reality!

I have an aggressive, progressive (and fatal, I’m told) neuromuscular disease affecting my lower extremities and hands, which I believe was statin-induced, based mostly on strong correlation of symptoms with use of Pravastatin (3/2016, 13 days) and Rosuvastatin (2017-18, 5 months). I am STEM-trained, so I understand that correlation isn’t causation, but seeing the strong, repeated correlation, and lacking any other explanation, I’m going with it. I was likely pre-diabetic at my initial Dx of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy (2006), so the statins may have had a softer target to work on.

Yes, I DO APPRECIATE The People’s Pharmacy. I started listening to your Saturday 90 minute radio broadcasts every week in the late 1970’s. In 2000 I moved from Cary, NC to Delray Beach, FL and listened to your broadcasts on radio, but then the station went religious. No More radio broadcasts for me. I read your newsletters on my computer and read you in the Palm Beach Post.
I have LEARNED A LOT from your informative writings and think I can decide what is best for me. I only take Levothyroxine as I have Grave’s Disease. I am 88 years young, playing golf, water aerobics, walk and enjoy life. Hopefully, I will make it 12 more years to the 100 mark!!!

Dear Heide,

You ARE a long-term People’s Pharmacy follower. We are so sorry that you can no longer listen to our radio show live. BUT, you can listen to our podcasts! If you are not familiar with downloading mp3 files to your computer or device, you can listen to the streaming audio. It is SUPER SIMPLE.

Just go to the radio show you want to listen to. You can find it by going to the home page of http://www.PeoplesPharmacy.com. Under the logo at the top of the page you will see a navigation bar with headings like Health Concerns, Libraries and Podcasts. When you click on podcasts you will see recent radio shows. Just under each show is a green circle with a white arrow. Click on the white arrow and the radio show will start to play. Easy-Peasy!

Thank you for following us for so long. We are delighted to learn that you are a perfect People’s Pharmacy role model. Exercise is so very important. At the rate you are going we would love to celebrate the century mark with you!

The level for what is considered too high for “bad cholesterol” keeps changing, and as a result more and more medications are being prescribed. It is a money maker for the pharmaceutical industry. As a result more and more people are experiencing adverse effects when they don’t even necessarily need to be on medication. There are natural ways of lowering cholesterol but as a society we’ve been conditioned to pop a pill so, sadly, people are being put at risk.

I am very pleased with Peoples Pharmacy articles twice each week. I had taken zocor for several months many years ago and could not walk at all. Four years ago I decided I would no longer take Simivastatin after 16 years. I am doing good and have had no problems at all. I do have prediabetes and watch very carefully. I feel it is from the statins I took.
Thank You for all the research.

I have read before, from such sources as a Cochrane doctor’s opinion, that other than middle aged men who’ve had a heart attack, or been diagnosed with heart disease, statins have VERY dubious benefits. In fact, after I believe it was 6 years use the conclusion was you MIGHT add 4-6 DAYS to your life. To me this is hardly a ringing endorsement, and the high possibility of one of more of some pretty serious side effects more than negates any vague possibility of some tiny benefit. Additionally, cardiologists aren’t gods and are just as capable of self deception and wishful thinking as anyone, oh, and being influenced by money and brainwashing by big pharma too.

When my doctor put me on statins five years ago, within a month, when I caught what I thought was a cold, it would not leave my system. I was sick for almost a month (I never get that sick, and have a cold for around 2-3 days when I get them, about 2-3 times a year). Once the cold seemed to clear up, I got mouth sores and another strange thing that took two weeks to clear my system. I decided my immune system was compromised and stopped taking the statins after 3 months. I slowly got better, but it took about a year for my immune functions to come back. I refuse now to take statins. Instead I’ve lost 25 lbs and am working on 10 more to get in the middle of the normal weight BMI. Other than high cholesterol (313 in August), I have no risk factors for heart disease, and my cholesterol was 220 in my 30s when I was running 25-30 miles a week.

Off of Statins now because of severe muscle cramps, but am also afflicted with all of the above mentioned afflictions. Think these are age related but have to wonder if statin for only a few years of use accelerated their onset.

30 years later and the experts still don’t know how these statins fully react with a human. It certainly makes you wonder about the other thousands of drugs in use and what they have in store for our health 10-20-30 years down the road. No thanks, I’ll pass on Big Pharma.

I believe there are side effects that are not found until years after drugs have been on the market. Statins are so widely prescribed that some doctors have said they would prefer that all their adult patients took them. If clients, otherwise known as patients, ask about side effects the medical professionals often ignore the question. They don’t care.

I will stick to my great statins and have cholesterol as normal physiological levels and lower my chance of blocking arteries. This study is most relevant to those with advanced diabetes.

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