Vasodilators: Types and Side Effects

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Published 08/17/2022

Updated 04/26/2023

Today we have the honor of introducing you to a group of life-saving medications: vasodilators. These prescription meds can do things like prevent heart attacks and help give you firmer erections. Pretty neat stuff. 

Blood flow is life, no blood flow is death and when it comes to your hair and your penis, the process of vasodilation (dilating your blood vessels) is almost as important. And consequently, in a roundabout way, vasodilators are equally important. 

Below, we’ve covered:

  • What vasodilators are

  • The side effects of vasodilators

  • The most common types of vasodilators

Read on to learn more about what, how, why and when these meds can put help keep your health in check — both in and out of the bedroom.

What are Vasodilators?

Vasodilators (sometimes called blood vessel dilators) work by helping the smooth muscle cells in the walls of your blood vessels relax so that blood flows through them more easily.

When your blood vessels dilate, blood flows through your whole body more efficiently. That means your organs, tissues and cells get more oxygen, which in turn keeps them healthy and operating normally. In the long term, it can help prevent things like heart disease.

Types of Vasodilators Medications

There are several different vasodilators and each comes with different instruction manuals. Some directly affect specific muscles so that they relax, while others contain chemicals that interrupt reactions to expand all of your body’s blood vessels.  Different types of vasodilators or blood pressure medications include: 

  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors: Angiotensin is a chemical that causes blood vessels to constrict. This direct vasodilator decreases angiotensin to open blood vessels.

  • Nitrates: Another direct vasodilator, nitrates (as in nitroglycerin) transform into nitrous oxide, which in turn helps open blood vessels.

  • Angiotensin Receptor Blockers (ARBs): This medication prevents angiotensin from attaching to your blood vessel walls. When this type of indirect vasodilator prevents this attachment, it allows blood vessels to open.

  • Calcium Channel Blockers (CCBs): Calcium helps arteries constrict. Calcium channel blockers like nifedipine prevent calcium from entering your artery walls, thereby helping them not constrict. This medication is known as a systemic vasodilator. 

What do Vasodilators Treat? 

Vasodilators treat various conditions — most of them related to hypertensive issues. Some of the most common conditions that vasodilators are used to treat are:  

  • High blood pressure (hypertension) 

  • Congestive heart failure and myocardial infraction

  • Angina and Coronary Artery Disease

  • Pulmonary hypertension

Some of these even have specific uses like fighting hair loss (Minoxidil is one such type of vasodilator). This particular vasodilator can be taken orally (and is also used to treat high blood pressure), but can also be used in topical form to treat hair loss.

Some medications for ED are also considered vasodilators. Like a water balloon, your penis grows when a liquid — in this case, blood — flows in. In this awkward metaphor, erectile dysfunction results from the balloon not being able to fill properly. Vasodilators often solve the problem.

Side Effects of Vasodilators

Vasodilators come with some pretty heavy side effects. Because of this, they’re usually only prescribed when nothing else has worked.

If your healthcare provider prescribes a vasodilator, you may need other medications to address some of the severe side effects. For example, it could cause extreme fluid retention (edema) and you may need a diuretic to help ease that. 

The most serious side effect is arguably hypotension — the “hey I work in cardiology” term for low blood pressure. Lower blood pressure is good if you have vasoconstriction, but if it gets low enough your heart can just, you know, stop. So you should never take more of these than what’s prescribed to you.

Other common adverse effects connected to taking vasodilators include: 

  • Fatigue

  • Joint pain

  • Headaches

  • Chest pain

  • Dizziness

  • Dry cough, especially when taking ACE inhibitors 

  • Heart palpitations or increased heart rate

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Along with side effects, you need to be careful of medication interactions when taking a vasodilator. For example, ACE inhibitors can react poorly with potassium supplements and medications with lithium. And nitrates can interact poorly with sildenafil and tadalafil

Our point is that it’s always important to disclose any and all medications you are currently taking before you start taking something new. 

You’ll want to tell your healthcare provider if you’re on beta blockers, nitric oxide, nitroprusside or other antihypertensive medications.

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The Most Common Vasodilator Medications

Arguably speaking, the most common vasodilators might be selective vasodilators like the ones used to treat erectile dysfunction and hair loss. They’re available through a variety of providers.

But those typically aren’t categorized alongside the ones we’ve been discussing.

Within the general category, though, ARBs and CCBs are the most common options used. 

  • ARBs are commonly prescribed as indirect inhibitors. A popular ARB is losartan. 

  • CCBs are also common — one that may be suggested to you is called diltiazem. 

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Are There Natural Vasodilators?

Natural vasodilators are a sticky subject. A variety of supplements not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may make dubious claims that suggest they provide the same benefits as something like Viagra® with an “herbal” or “natural” ingredient list. Common examples include L-Arginine, niacin and magnesium.

In many cases, these new age-y cousins of gas station sex pills are way less safe than just talking to a healthcare professional about prescribing you the real stuff. 

Ironically, there’s another commonly used vasodilator that you may have used recently without knowing it — booze. While you probably associate alcohol with whiskey dick, alcohol is a natural vasodilator (it’s why people who drink to excess can look flushed).

If you’re looking for the safest and most universally recommended vasodilator on the market however, may we present our favorite: exercise. 

Exercise can increase vasodilation and restore healthy blood flow to the body. It can also (along with a healthy diet) reduce obesity risk and other factors that can make it hard to, well, get hard

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Breaking Down Vasodilators 

Vasodilators are most commonly used to treat heart conditions like congestive heart failure, vascular disease, high blood pressure and more.

  • There are different types of vasodilators. Direct vasodilators increase blood flow by affecting smooth muscles.  Indirect vasodilators interrupt other activities that cause constriction. 

  • ED medications can act as vasodilators for the tissues in your penis.

  • There’s even a topical vasodilator (topical minoxidil) that’s popularly used to treat hair loss in men.

  • Vasodilator medications do come with a risk of side effects — like nausea, increased heart rate and more. 

  • Direct vasodilators tend to have more severe side effects and are not used quite as often. Indirect vasodilators tend to be prescribed a bit more often because the side effects are less pronounced. Vasodilators should never be used with medications for ED without a healthcare professional’s knowledge — crossing the two can be fatal.

If you think you may qualify for the administration of vasodilator medication, it’s best to schedule a consultation with a healthcare provider. They will be able to assess your condition and determine the appropriate treatment plan for you.

7 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Ramanlal, R., Gupta, V., (2022). Physiology, Vasodilation. StatPearls. Retrieved https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557562/#:~:text=Vasodilation%20occurs%20when%20the%20smooth,stimulus%20or%20inhibition%20of%20contractility.
  2. Types of Blood Pressure Medications. American Heart Association. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/types-of-blood-pressure-medications#vasodilator
  3. Vasodilators. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/23207-vasodilators
  4. Minoxidil. Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682608.html
  5. Minoxidil Topical. Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a689003.html
  6. Piano M. R. (2017). Alcohol's Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol research : current reviews, 38(2), 219–241. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513687/.
  7. Limberg, J. K., Kellawan, J. M., Harrell, J. W., Johansson, R. E., Eldridge, M. W., Proctor, L. T., Sebranek, J. J., & Schrage, W. G. (2014). Exercise-mediated vasodilation in human obesity and metabolic syndrome: effect of acute ascorbic acid infusion. American journal of physiology. Heart and circulatory physiology, 307(6), H840–H847. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4166748/.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.