Common side effects include headache and low blood pressure. The low blood pressure can be severe. It is unclear if use in pregnancy is safe for the baby. It should not be used together with medications within the sildenafil (PDE5 inhibitor) family due to the risk of low blood pressure. Nitroglycerin is in the nitrate family of medications. While it is not entirely clear how it works, it is believed to function by dilating blood vessels.
After long-term use for chronic conditions, nitrate tolerance-tolerance to agents such as GTN - may develop in a patient, reducing its effectiveness. Tolerance is defined as the loss of symptomatic and hemodynamic effects of GTN and/or the need for higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effects, and was first described soon after the introduction of GTN in cardiovascular therapy. Studies have shown that nitrate tolerance is associated with vascular abnormalities which have the potential to worsen patients' prognosis. These include endothelial and autonomic dysfunction.
Glyceryl trinitrate can cause severe hypotension, reflex tachycardia, and severe headaches that necessitate analgesic intervention for pain relief, the painful nature of which can have a marked negative effect on patient compliance.
The NO produced by this process is a potent activator of guanylyl cyclase (GC) by heme-dependent mechanisms; this activation results in formation of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) from guanosine triphosphate (GTP). Among other roles, cGMP serves as a substrate for a cGMP-dependent protein kinase that activates myosin light chain phosphatase. Thus, production of NO from exogenous sources such as GTN increases the level of cGMP within the cell, and stimulates dephosphorylation of myosin, which initiates relaxation of smooth muscle cells in blood vessels.
Following Thomas Brunton's discovery that amyl nitrite could be used to treat chest pain, William Murrell experimented with the use of nitroglycerin to alleviate angina pectoris and reduce blood pressure, and showed that the accompanying headaches occurred as a result of overdose. Murrell began treating patients with small doses of GTN in 1878, and the substance was widely adopted after he published his results in The Lancet in 1879.