FAQs on Aspirin

by Dr Y.L.M

I have heard so much about aspirin. I see it all the time on pharmacy shelves. My parents take one tablet every day. I've been told all sorts of things about this 'wonder drug', which people say can prevent heart attacks and strokes, and even decrease the risk of cancer. Is this all true?

Aspirin is truly a remarkable drug. It has a very interesting history. It is actually acetylsalicylic acid, which is a mild painkiller.

It works by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemicals produced in our body that play a role in clotting our blood and sensitising our nerve endings to pain. Therefore, if aspirin blocks this chemical, we would feel less pain.

Additionally, our blood will not clot that easily. That is why people who take aspirin find their clotting process a little delayed after they sustain a wound.

How old is aspirin?

It is believed that the first records of aspirin were written by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. And he lived circa 400 BC.

He wrote about a powder made from the bark and leaves of a willow tree that relieved headaches, pains and fevers.

In the 19th century, scientists found out that the willow tree contains salicin. They then began to isolate the compound.

Then in 1899, a German scientist called Felix Hoffman, who worked for the pharmaceutical company Bayer, gave the formula to his father who had arthritis. It worked so well that Hoffman convinced Bayer to market the new drug.

Aspirin was patented in 1900. Yes, that's how old it is.

The term 'aspirin' has its own roots as well. The 'A' is from acetyl chloride. The 'spir' is from spiraea ulmaria, the plant salicylic acid it is derived from.

Aspirin was first sold as a powder, and later as tablets. After Germany lost the First World War, Bayer was forced to give up the aspirin trademark.

What should aspirin be used for?

Since it is such an old drug, aspirin has been studied for over a century in a wide variety of clinical trials for many uses. These are some of its indications :

Pain relief

Aspirin is still effective as a mild pain reliever, although it has been superseded by paracetamol and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

But it still can be used for headaches, painful periods, joint pains, etc. It also can be used for fever.

Prevention of cardiac events

This is what aspirin is primarily used for these days in millions of patients worldwide. Its prevention of blood clotting comes into play here.

An aspirin a day can actually thin your blood and reduce the risk of clots forming in your blood vessels. These clots are the precursor to heart attacks and strokes. So if you have risk factors for these, it is good to take aspirin.

Once you have had a cardiac event or a thromboembolic stroke (the kind of stroke caused by a blood clot going into your brain), you would have to go on aspirin for life.

There are, of course, other alternatives to aspirin today, such as Cardiprin (easier on your stomach) and Plavix. But aspirin remains a very cheap and good alternative.

Aspirin is also used to treat rheumatic fever and Kawasaki disease.

In that case, to prevent heart attacks and stroke, even though I am normal, shouldn't I take one aspirin a day?

That hypothesis may be true, but not everyone should take one aspirin a day.

People who should take aspirin regularly are those who are at risk of getting heart attacks or stroke, or who have had either.

Aspirin has side effects that you may not want to expose yourself to unnecessarily if you don't need to take it. You should always consult your doctor before taking aspirin.

What sort of side effects would I get from aspirin?

Not everyone will get side effects. The majority of people taking aspirin may not get any side effects at all, other than your blood taking longer to clot when there is a wound.

But the main side effects people fear from aspirin are gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding, and also tinnitus (a buzzing sound in the ear in the absence of external sounds).

More info on ASPIRIN here.

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