OTC Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers (cont.)

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Other attempts to prevent complications have included aspirin-containing products that release the aspirin slowly over time (for example, Zorprin, Measurin, Verin). Like enteric-coated products, these products are not ideal when prompt relief of pain is needed. They also do not prevent ulcers or bleeding. Buffered (for example, Bufferin) and effervescent (such as Alka-Seltzer) aspirin products are absorbed more quickly from the stomach and intestine than aspirin, but they do not act more rapidly than regular aspirin and do not reduce the risk of bleeding or ulcers. Furthermore, effervescent aspirin products contain large amounts of sodium (salt) and should be avoided in persons with high blood pressure, heart failure, or certain kidney diseases.

Side effects of aspirin

Aspirin prevents platelets from their natural ability to stick together and form blood clots. On the one hand, this effect can be used beneficially, such as to prevent the blood clots that cause heart attacks or strokes. On the other hand, by preventing blood clots, aspirin can have the detrimental effect of promoting bleeding. Therefore, aspirin should not be used by people who have diseases that cause bleeding (such as hemophilia and severe liver disease) or diseases in which bleeding may occur as a complication (such as stomach ulcers). Moreover, since the effect of aspirin on platelets lasts for many days, people should not take aspirin for at least seven days before surgical or dental procedures because of the increased risk of bleeding after the procedures.

In patients at risk for bleeding, acetaminophen can be an excellent alternative to aspirin since acetaminophen does not have an effect on platelets, blood clots, or bleeding.

Like aspirin, other NSAIDs affect platelets, but the duration of the effect is less than with aspirin. Two aspirin-related, salicylate-containing products (salsalate and choline magnesium trisalicylate) have no effect on the platelets, but they are available only by prescription.

Serious side effects of aspirin occur infrequently. However, they may occur and generally tend to be more frequent with higher doses. Therefore, it is advisable to use the lowest effective dose to minimize side effects.

The most common side effects of aspirin involve the gastrointestinal system. Aspirin can cause ulcers of the stomach and duodenum (first part of the small intestine), abdominal pain, nausea, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), and even serious gastrointestinal bleeding from ulcers. Sometimes, ulcers of the stomach and bleeding occur without any abdominal pain, and the only signs of bleeding may be bloody or dark stools or weakness.

Although many people claim to be "allergic" to aspirin, most describe their "allergy" as abdominal pain or heartburn. These common side effects are not allergies, but rather reflect the irritating effects of aspirin on the lining of the stomach. True allergy to aspirin is a rare and serious condition in which a patient can develop swelling of tissues, spasm of the airways (bronchospasm) that causes difficulty breathing, and even anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition. Clearly, patients with a history of allergy to aspirin should not take aspirin. Since aspirin is related chemically to the other NSAIDs, patients who are allergic to the other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), should also not take aspirin.

Pregnancy/breastfeeding and aspirin

Regular aspirin consumption during pregnancy has been associated with side effects in the pregnant mother, including bleeding and complications during labor. It is unclear if aspirin taken in the first two trimesters poses a risk to the fetus. However, when taken during the third trimester, aspirin may increase the risk of bleeding in the newborn. Nevertheless, for certain mothers with diseases that are associated with a high risk for blood clotting during pregnancy and miscarriage, aspirin is actually recommended in low doses for prevention. Although very little aspirin is secreted into breast milk, most authorities recommend that nursing mothers avoid using aspirin. A woman should consult with her health care practitioner before taking any medications while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Viral infections in children and aspirin

Because aspirin causes Reye's syndrome (a potentially fatal liver disease that occurs almost exclusively in persons under the age of 15 years), aspirin should not be given to children when a viral infection is suspected.

Report Problems to the Food and Drug Administration

You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

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