If any drug comes close to being termed a “wonder drug”, it’s the cheap and ubiquitous painkiller aspirin. It is now routinely prescribed to people above 50 years with more than two risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high bad cholesterol or diabetes.
This week, the medical journal The Lancet reported research from Oxford University showed how taking 75mg of aspirin daily for five years reduces the risk of getting bowel cancer by a quarter, and deaths from the disease by a third. A 75mg dose is less than a standard baby aspirin (81mg) and less than one-fourth of regular strength aspirin (325 mg).
On October 25, researchers from the Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, US, announced that people with prostate cancer who took the painkiller had a slightly lower chance of dying, down from 10 percent to 4 percent. People with a tumour that had not spread beyond the prostate gland benefited the most. These findings came a week after another study found that healthy people who took 75mg of aspirin for five years cut their risk of bowel cancer.
Earlier this year, US researchers reported that the over-the-counter drug protected women against breast cancer and cut the risk of prostate cancer spreading to the bones, along with the risk of dying from the disease.
Do these findings mean that a daily aspirin should replace the more pedestrian multivitamin as the drug of choice of everyone over 50? No. Although popping an aspirin or two is safe for most adults to use for headaches, body aches or hangovers, daily use of aspirin can have serious side effects, including excessive bleeding.
Aspirin thins the blood and protects against atherosclerosis — the build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries — by reducing the clumping action of platelets that clot and block blood flow to the heart and brain.
Aspirin should not be taken if you have health conditions that could increase your risk of bleeding or other complications, such as a bleeding or clotting disorders, asthma, a history of gastritis or ulcers, and heart failure.
Discontinue taking aspirin before a surgery or dental work to reduce risk of excessive bleeding during surgery. While an aspirin taken daily can help prevent a clot-related stroke, it may increase the risk of a bleeding stroke (hemorrhaegic stroke). It causes allergies in some people and overdosing can cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in some others.
Aspirin should also not be taken with other medications. While having it with ibuprofen (Brufen, Ibugin, Ibusynth, Norswell and Sugafen) reduces its beneficial effects, taking it with other anti-coagulants, such as warfarin (Sofarin, Uniwarfin, Warf), increases the risk of internal bleeding.
Other drugs and herbal supplements that increase the risk of bleeding are heparin, corticosteroids, some antidepressants such as clomipramine and paroxetine, and dietary supplements such as Evening primrose oil, Ginkgo and Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils).
Because of its blood-thinning effect, the US Food and Drug Administration also warns people to limit alcohol to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men because of Aspirin’s blood-thinning effects.
Consider a daily low-dose aspirin if you have had a heart attack or stroke, or are at risk of either. Bear in mind two or more risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure (above 130 mm Hg/ 90 mm Hg), high cholesterol (bad cholesterol above 130 mg/dL), diabetes or stress. The best precaution is discussing your medical history and existing drug prescriptions with your doctor before popping the wonder pill.