This story was updated on December 3, 2018.
Two more blood pressure medications have joined the growing list of recalled drugs. The combination drugs amlodipine/valsartan and amlodipine/valsartan/hydrochlorothiazide join valsartan, losartan and irbesartan—all facing recalls because they may contain substances that cause cancer.
You might think that the safest thing to do is to stop taking your medication if it’s been recalled. But that’s not necessarily true.
“The reason they are being recalled is there’s something in them that may theoretically cause you to have a problem. It may cause cancer in the future,” says Kathryn Boling, MD, a family medicine physician with Mercy Medical Center in Lutherville, MD.
Yet the dangers of high blood pressure likely outweighs the risks of cancer from the recalled medications.
“Stopping your medication and having your blood pressure shoot up right now is a real-time risk of stroke, heart disease, and kidney damage,” she says. “That’s why you should keep taking it until you get a replacement. It’s a theoretical risk vs. a real risk to your life.”
John Osborne, MD, a cardiologist in Dallas, TX, agrees.
“Uncontrolled high blood pressure is 100% clearly a killer,” he says. “It’s orders of magnitude higher risk than the theoretical risk of this contaminant.”
What are the dangers of high blood pressure?
According to the American Heart Association, more than two-thirds of adults in the US over age 60 have high blood pressure.
It’s important to keep your blood pressure under control—the higher your readings, the greater your risk.
Every time your top (systolic) number goes up by 20 mmHg, or your bottom (diastolic) number goes up by 10 mmHg, you double your risk of death due to stroke, heart disease, or vascular disease.
What’s the actual risk of cancer?
A study of NDMA, the substance found in some lots of valsartan, was published in the international research journal The BMJ in September. It didn’t find a significant increase in cancer in the short term. But it warned that longer-term studies are needed.
The FDA estimates that if 8,000 people took the highest dose of valsartan for four years (many people take lower doses), one additional cancer case might occur.
There’s less data available on NDEA, a substance found in all three recalled drugs. It’s known to cause cancer in animals, and the Environmental Protection Agency considers it a probable human carcinogen.
Does the recall affect you?
Only certain lots of each medication are being recalled. Boling says that most people won’t be able to tell whether their medication was recalled just by looking at the bottle.
“The first step is to check with your pharmacist,” she says. “Only your pharmacist knows. Your doctor doesn’t know where the drug was ordered from.”
If your pharmacist says your drug was recalled, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you find another version of that drug, or another drug that you can take instead. That way you can limit the time you’re taking the recalled medication.