Digitalis is a medication prescribed to certain heart patients. Digitalis toxicity is a complication of digitalis therapy, or it may be occur when someone takes too much of the drug at one time. (This is called an acute ingestion.)
The most common prescription form of this medication is called digoxin. Digitoxin is another form of digitalis.
Digitalis toxicity can be caused by high levels of digitalis in the body. It may also be caused by a decreased tolerance to the drug. Patients with decreased tolerance may have normal levels of digitalis in their blood. Digitalis toxicity may occur in these patients if they have other risk factors.
People with heart failure who take digoxin are commonly given medications called diuretics, which remove excess fluid from the body. Many diuretics can cause potassium loss. Low levels of potassium in the body increase the risk of digitalis toxicity. Digitalis toxicity may also result in persons who take the drug and who have low levels of magnesium in the body.
You are more likely to have this condition if you take digoxin, digitoxin, or other digitalis medicines along with drugs that interact with it such as quinidine, flecainide, verapamil, amiodarone, and others.
If your kidneys do not work well, digitalis can build up in the body rather than be removed normally through urine. Any problem that affects how your kidneys work (including dehydration) makes digitalis toxicity more likely.
Some plants such as oleander or lily of the valley have chemicals that can cause symptoms similar to digitalis toxicity if they are eaten.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.