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What is aspirin?

Aspirin is a common drug for relieving minor aches, pains, and fevers. People also use it as an anti-inflammatory or a blood thinner.

People can buy aspirin over the counter without a prescription. Everyday uses include relieving headache, reducing swelling, and reducing a fever.

Taken daily, aspirin can lower the risk of cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack or stroke, in people with a high risk. Doctors may administer aspirin immediately after a heart attack to prevent further clots and heart tissue death.

This article provides an overview of aspirin, including its uses, risks, interactions, and possible side effects.

What is aspirin?

Image credit: Adrienne Bresnahan/Getty Images

Aspirin is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). It was the first of this class of drug to be discovered.

Aspirin contains salicylate, a compound found in plants such as the willow tree and myrtle. Its use was first recorded around 4,000 years agoTrusted Source.

Hippocrates used willow bark for relieving pain and fevers, and some people still use willow bark as a natural remedy for headaches and minor pain.

NSAIDs are a class of drug with the following effects:

relieving pain

reducing fever

lowering inflammation, in higher doses

These drugs are not steroids. Steroids often have similar benefits to NSAIDs, but they are not appropriate for everyone and can have unwanted side effects.

As analgesics, NSAIDs tend to be non-narcotic. This means that they do not cause insensibility or a stupor.

Aspirin is a trademark owned by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. The generic term for aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid.

Uses

Aspirin has many uses, including relieving pain and swelling, managing various conditions, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular events in people with a high risk.

Pain and swelling

Aspirin can relieve mild to moderate pain, swelling, or both associated with many health issues, such as:

headaches

a cold or flu

sprains and strains

menstrual cramps

long-term conditions, such as arthritis and migraine

For severe pain, a doctor may recommend using aspirin alongside another drug, such as an opioid pain reliever or another NSAID.

Preventing cardiovascular events

The daily use of low-dose aspirin can lower the risk of cardiovascular events in some people — it is not safe for everyone. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source recommend only using aspirin in this way under the supervision of a doctor.

In people with a high risk of cardiovascular events, low-dose aspirin can reduce the risk by preventing blood clots from forming.

A doctor may recommend daily low-dose aspirin for people who :

have a heart or blood vessel disease

have evidence of poor blood flow to the brain

have high blood cholesterol

have high blood pressure, or hypertension

have diabetes

smoke

However, for people without these issues, the risks of long-term aspirin use can outweigh the benefits.

The 2016 recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force say that adults aged 50–59 may take aspirin daily to prevent colorectal cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease. However, this guidance only applies to adults in the age range who:

have at least a 10% 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease

do not have a high risk of bleeding

have a life expectancy of at least 10 years

are willing to take a daily low dose for at least 10 years

Treating coronary events

Doctors may administer aspirin immediately after a heart attack, stroke, or another cardiovascular event to prevent further clot formation and cardiac tissue death.

Aspirin can also be part of a treatment plan for people who have recently had:

revascularization surgery, such as an angioplasty or coronary bypass surgery

a mini-stroke, or transient ischemic attack

an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blood clot

Other uses

Aspirin can also help treat pain and swelling associated with the following chronic health conditions:

rheumatic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and other inflammatory joint conditions

systemic lupus erythematosus

inflammation around the heart, known as pericarditis

Doctors may recommend low-dose aspirin to people:

with retinal damage, also called retinopathy

who have had diabetes for more than 10 years

who are taking antihypertensive medications

with a risk of colorectal cancer

Is aspirin safe for children?

Doctors do not usually recommend aspirin for people under 18.

This is because it can increase the risk of a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome, which can appear after a viral infection such as a cold, the flu, or chickenpox. Reye’s syndrome can lead to permanent brain injury or death.

However, a clinician may prescribe aspirin to a child under supervision if they have Kawasaki disease or to prevent blood clots from forming after heart surgery.

For children, doctors usually recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), in appropriate doses, instead of aspirin.

Risks and precautions

People with the following conditions should be cautious about taking aspirin, and should only do so if a doctor recommends it:

bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia

uncontrolled high blood pressure

asthma

peptic or stomach ulcers

liver or kidney disease

Under a doctor’s supervision, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding may take low-dose aspirin. Doctors usually do not recommend high-dose aspirin during pregnancy.

Anyone with a known allergy to aspirin or any other NSAID, such as ibuprofen, should avoid these drugs.

Doctors do not administer aspirin during a stroke because not all strokes are caused by blood clots. In some cases, aspirin could make a stroke worse.

Also, anyone who drinks alcohol regularly or is undergoing dental or surgical treatment, however small, should ask a doctor before taking aspirin.

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