Is Aspirin a Cure-All?

A woman holds two aspirin in her hand.
(Image credit: Dmitry Lobanov/Shutterstock)

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: I've been hearing a lot about the health benefits of aspirin. Is it some kind of cure-all or am I the victim of hype?

Answer: I wouldn't call it hype. There's a lot of research that indicates aspirin is good for many ailments.

Aspirin is in a group of drugs called salicylates. It works by reducing substances in the body that cause pain, fever, swelling and blood clots.

Aspirin is used to treat mild to moderate pain, fever or inflammation. It is sometimes used to treat or prevent heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions. Recent studies concluded that taking aspirin may battle cancer. [5 Interesting Facts About Aspirin]

Aspirin reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes by preventing blood clots from forming along the lining of blood vessels. Blood clots block the flow of blood. Clots that block blood flow to the heart cause heart attacks, and clots that block blood flow to the brain cause strokes.

Aspirin's most common side effect is upper abdominal pain caused by gastric irritation. Aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding — about one case of bleeding for every 1,000 patients treated for a year. One to two percent of people are allergic to aspirin.

Other possible side effects are nausea, vomiting, heartburn, hives, rash, swelling, wheezing, hoarseness, rapid heartbeat and breathing, clammy skin, ringing in the ears, loss of hearing, bloody vomit and blood in stools.

Many people take aspirin daily to prevent heart attacks. Don't start this therapy on your own; ask your doctor about it. And don't stop taking daily aspirin without consulting a physician. Stopping daily aspirin therapy can have a rebound effect that may increase your risk of heart attack.

Should you take an aspirin if you think you're having a heart attack?

First, call 911. The operator may advise you to chew an aspirin, but will first make sure you don't have health conditions that would make taking an aspirin during a heart attack too risky.

Aspirin is a non-steroidal inflammatory drug (NSAID). Other NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). Aspirin is a unique NSAID because it is the only one that inhibits blood clotting for a prolonged period (4 to 7 days.)

If you are taking aspirin regularly to prevent heart attack or stroke, do not take other NSAIDs to treat pain or fever without talking to your doctor.

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All Rights Reserved © 2014 by Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."