Millions of Americans benefit from the use of NSAIDs but there are sometimes risks associated with their use.

Over-the-Counter Dangers

Some Painkillers May Pose Health Risks

Some people who take NSAIDS may risk for serious stomach problems. Click on the weblink to test for your estimated personal NSAID risk profile.

By Nancy Snyderman, M.D.


G R E E N B R A E, Calif., May 26  Asprin, naproxen (the active ingredient found in drugs such as Aleve), and ibuprofen, all belong to a class of medicine called "NSAIDs" non-steroidal anti-inflamatory drugs. People tend to think they're perfectly safe. They are not.

Nina Waite regularly took one of the popular over-the-counter NSAIDs to fight her debilitating headaches. But the drugs gave her several ulcers.

"They look just like little sores in your mouth. But the problem is that they bleed, and I lost a third of my blood due to this bleeding from those ulcers," says Waite.

Ken Smythe took ibuprofen after surgery, and he too developed bleeding ulcers. Smythe says he heeded bottle instructions and never exceeded the maximum dosage. But risk increases with age and usage, and may be affected if the patient is taking other drugs.

No one suggests restricting these drugs. Millions of Americans take an aspirin every day to help ward off heart attacks, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. And millions more take ibuprofen and other NSAIDs for pain and inflammatory diseases. But small risks, when millions of people are taking them, can translate into big numbers.

Thousands Hospitalized

"We need to worry about people who are taking large amounts of either prescription or over-the-counter medicines," says Dr. James Fries of Stanford University.

Complications from NSAID use send 103,000 people to the hospital each year. Many of these patients don't recognize symptoms of these complications when they first develop.

"People may be totally unaware of an ulcer being in their stomach and the ulcer may open up and start bleeding out of the blue," warns gastroenterologist Dr. George Triadafilopoulos.

The doctors' advice is simple: Use NSAIDs sparingly, read the label, follow it and keep in mind these are powerful medications.

Calculate your estimated personal NSAID risk profile.