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Vol. IV No. 23   ·   16 February 2001 

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Aspirin: more than just pain relief

I always thought aspirin was just for headaches, but lately I've heard that it may be good for your heart. What are the benefits and side effects of aspirin?

Aspirin is one of the oldest and most common medications in the world. As early as 200 b.c., the Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed teas made from the bark and leaves of the willow tree to relieve pain and fever. Willow bark is rich in a substance called salicin, which forms the base for salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

According to Michael Klein, M.D., professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Electrocardiography Lab at Boston Medical Center, the cardiovascular benefits of aspirin have been the most publicized, but there are other health effects associated with regular aspirin use. "There was a 1995 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine indicating that aspirin can reduce the risk for colorectal cancer when used consistently," he says. "Aspirin was also associated with a reduced risk for esophageal cancer, based on a large study published in the October 1995 issue of the journal Cancer."

Although these studies are connected with the benefits of aspirin, it is true that most of the recent good news about the drug has been linked to heart disease and heart attack. The reason aspirin is so effective is that it acts on the blood in a very specific manner. "Salicylic acid has two functions," says Klein. "It dilates, or expands, the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more easily to organs and tissues, and it also works to break apart aggregated platelets -- blood cells that have become stuck together. When platelets aggregate, they can block blood flow to the heart muscle tissue, which is the cause of a heart attack."

For patients who have angina (chest pain caused by reduced flow of blood to the heart muscle), recent evidence shows that taking an aspirin can actually prevent a heart attack from occurring. "Having even a small amount of salicylic acid in the bloodstream seems to be very effective when it comes to preventing a first or second heart attack," Klein says.

"Aspirin has a number of benefits, but like any drug, it should be used cautiously," he says. He points out that children should not be given aspirin because of the potential side effect of Reye's syndrome, an often fatal disease that affects all organs of the body, but more often the brain and liver. Reye's syndrome primarily affects children, and is associated with viral infections, such as chicken pox or influenza, but the specific cause is not known. If diagnosed early enough, there is an excellent chance for a successful recovery.

"Parents, naturally, are concerned about pain relief for children with a fever or headache; however, they should give children acetaminophen (Tylenol), not aspirin," Klein adds. "Reye's syndrome can sometimes affect adults, so taking acetaminophen for fever is also advised."

Despite the potential side effects, aspirin can be very beneficial for those at risk for heart disease and certain cancers. As with any medication, always read warning labels, and if you are concerned about whether regular aspirin use is appropriate for you, talk with your doctor.

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on whooping cough or other health matters, call 617-638-6767.

       

16 February 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations