July 28, 2016
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Mechanism Of Action

Nitroglycerin forms free radical nitric oxide (NO), which activates guanylate cyclase, resulting in an increase of guanosine 3',5'-monophosphate (cyclic GMP) in smooth muscle and other tissues. This eventually leads to dephosphorylation of myosin light chains, which regulates the contractile state in smooth muscle and results in vasodilatation.


The principal pharmacological action of nitroglycerin is relaxation of vascular smooth muscle. Although venous effects predominate, nitroglycerin produces, in a dose-related manner, dilation of both arterial and venous beds. Dilation of the postcapillary vessels, including large veins, promotes peripheral pooling of blood, decreases venous return to the heart, and reduces left ventricular end-diastolic pressure (preload). Nitroglycerin also produces arteriolar relaxation, thereby reducing peripheral vascular resistance and arterial pressure (after load), and dilates large epicardial coronary arteries; however, the extent to which this latter effect contributes to the relief of exertional angina is unclear.

Therapeutic doses of nitroglycerin may reduce systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Effective coronary perfusion pressure is usually maintained, but can be compromised if blood pressure falls excessively or increased heart rate decreases diastolic filling time. Elevated central venous and pulmonary capillary wedge pressures, and pulmonary and systemic vascular resistance are also reduced by nitroglycerin therapy. Heart rate is usually slightly increased, presumably a reflex response to the fall in blood pressure. Cardiac index may be increased, decreased, or unchanged. Myocardial oxygen consumption or demand (as measured by the pressure-rate product, tension-time index, and stroke-work index) is decreased and a more favorable supply-demand ratio can be achieved. Patients with elevated left ventricular filling pressure and increased systemic vascular resistance in association with a depressed cardiac index are likely to experience an improvement in cardiac index. In contrast, when filling pressures and cardiac index are normal, cardiac index may be slightly reduced following nitroglycerin administration.


Nitroglycerin is rapidly absorbed following lingual spray administration. In a pharmacokinetic study when a single 1200 mcg dose (three activations of a 400 mcg dose) of NitroMist was administered to healthy volunteers (n=12), all subjects had detectable trinitroglycerin plasma levels (mean Cmax 0.8 ng/mL ± 0.7 ng/mL and tmax of 8 minutes, range 4 minutes to 15 minutes) beginning at 2 minutes post-dose and higher levels of the 1,2-(mean Cmax 3.7 ng/mL ± 1 ng/mL and tmax 34 minutes ± 21 minutes, range 15 minutes to 90 minutes) and 1,3-dinitroglycerin metabolites (mean Cmax 1 ng/mL ± 0.3 ng/mL and mean tmax 41 minutes ± 20 minutes, range 20 minutes to 90 minutes).

The volume of distribution of nitroglycerin following intravenous administration is 3.3 L/kg.

A liver reductase enzyme is of primary importance in the metabolism of nitroglycerin to glycerol di-and mononitrate metabolites and ultimately to glycerol and organic nitrate. Known sites of extrahepatic metabolism include red blood cells and vascular walls. In addition to nitroglycerin, 2 major metabolites, 1,2-and 1,3dinitroglycerin are found in plasma. The mean elimination half-life of both 1,2-and 1,3-dinitroglycerin is about 40 minutes. The 1,2-and 1,3-dinitroglycerin metabolites have been reported to possess some pharmacological activity, whereas the glycerol mononitrate metabolites of nitroglycerin are essentially inactive. Higher plasma concentrations of the dinitro metabolites, with their nearly 8-fold longer elimination half-lives, may contribute significantly to the duration of pharmacologic effect.

In the above referenced pharmacokinetic study the average initial half-lives (T½α) of nitroglycerin, and its 1,2-and 1,3-dinitroglycerin metabolites were estimated to be 3 minutes, 10 minutes, and 11 minutes, respectively. The half-life of disappearance of the nitroglycerin (T½β) (5 minutes) was significantly less than the half-life of appearance (T½α) of the 1,2-and 1,3-dinitroglycerin metabolites suggesting the possibility of an additional compartment into which the nitroglycerin disappears from plasma prior to being metabolized into the dinitroglycerin metabolites. A second indication of this other compartment is that the appearance of nitroglycerin metabolites in plasma was delayed in some subjects, with zero plasma levels seen for 4 minutes to 6 minutes after dosing. In some subjects, nitroglycerin metabolites appeared only after nitroglycerin Cmax had been observed.

Clinical Studies

In a randomized, double-blind, single-center, single-administration, placebo-controlled, 4-period cross-over study in 30 subjects with stable angina pectoris, statistically significant dose-related increases in exercise tolerance were seen following doses of 200 mcg, 400 mcg, and 800 mcg of nitroglycerin delivered by NitroMist compared to placebo.

Last reviewed on RxList: 6/22/2016
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.

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