Niacin is a B-vitamin. When taken as a prescription in larger doses, it can help lower cholesterol and other fats in your blood. Niacin helps:
- Raise HDL (good) cholesterol
- Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Lower triglycerides, another type of fat in your blood
Niacin works by blocking how your liver makes cholesterol. Cholesterol can stick to the walls of your arteries and narrow or block them.
How Niacin Helps
Improving your cholesterol levels can help protect you from:
- Heart disease
- Heart attack
Your health care provider will work with you to lower your cholesterol by improving your diet. If this is not successful, medicines to lower cholesterol may be the next step. Statins are thought to be the best drugs to use for people who need medicines to lower their cholesterol.
Research now suggests that niacin does not add to the benefit of a statin alone for reducing the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and stroke.
In addition, niacin can cause unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects. Therefore, its use has been declining. However, some people may be prescribed niacin in addition to other drugs if they have very high cholesterol or if they do not tolerate other medicines.
Which Niacin Medicine is Right for You?
There are different brands of niacin medicines. Most also come in a less expensive, generic, form.
Niacin may be prescribed along with other medicines, such as a statin, to help lower cholesterol. Combination tablets that include nicotinic acid plus other medicines are also available.
Niacin is also sold over-the-counter (OTC) as a supplement. You should not take OTC niacin to help lower cholesterol. Doing so could have serious side effects.
How to Take Niacin
Take your medicine as directed. The medicine comes in tablet form. DO NOT break or chew tablets before taking the medicine. DO NOT stop taking your medicine without talking with your provider first.
You take niacin 1 to 3 times per day. It comes in different doses, depending on how much you need.
Read the label on the pill bottle carefully. Some brands should be taken at bedtime with a light, low-fat snack; others you will take with dinner. Avoid alcohol and hot drinks while taking niacin to reduce flushing.
Store all of your medicines in a cool, dry place. Keep them where children cannot get to them.
You should follow a healthy diet while taking niacin. This includes eating less fat in your diet. Other ways you can help your heart include:
- Getting regular exercise
- Managing stress
- Quitting smoking
Know Your Risks
Before you start taking niacin, tell your provider if you:
- Are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding
- Have allergies
- Are taking other medicines
- Drink a lot of alcohol
- Have diabetes, kidney disease, peptic ulcer, or gout
Talk to your provider about all of your medicines, herbs, or supplements. Certain medicines may interact with niacin.
Regular blood tests will help you and your provider:
- See how well the medicine is working
- Monitor for side effects, such as liver problems
Possible Side Effects
Mild side effects may include:
- Flushing and red face or neck
- Upset stomach
- Skin rash
Though rare, more serious side effects are possible. Your provider will monitor you for signs. Talk with your provider about these possible risks:
- Liver damage and changes to liver enzymes
- Severe muscle pain, tenderness, and weakness
- Heartbeat and rhythm changes
- Changes in blood pressure
- Severe flushing, skin rash, and skin changes
- Glucose intolerance
- Vision loss or changes
When to Call the Doctor
You should call your health care provider if you notice:
- Side effects that are bothering you
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Other new symptoms
Antilipemic agent; Vitamin B3; Nicotinic acid; Niaspan; Niacor: Hyperlipidemia - niacin; Hardening of the arteries - niacin; Cholesterol - niacin; Hypercholesterolemia - niacin; Dyslipidemia - niacin
Guyton JR, McGovern ME, Carlson LA. Niacin (nicotinic acid). In: Ballantyne CM, ed. Clinical Lipidology: A Companion to Braunwald's Heart Disease. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 24.
Lavigne PM, Karas RH. The current state of niacin in cardiovascular disease prevention: a systematic review and meta-regression. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013 Jan 29;61(4):440-446. PMID: 23265337 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23265337.
Stone NJ, Robinson J, Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jul 1;63(25 Pt B):2889-2934. PMID: 24239923 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24239923.
Review Date 2/24/2016
Updated by: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.