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Your medicine cabinet is likely stocked with at least one variety of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—common pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen that you reach for when you have a headache or sore muscles. As popular as these drugs are, however, many of us don’t fully understand their risks.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, NSAIDs are pain relievers that can also reduce inflammation and fever and prevent blood from clotting (which, while therapeutic in some cases, can be risky in others). They are widely available over the counter and also come in prescription strength. (1)

But before you reach for one of these familiar medicines for your next illness, bump, or strain, take a minute to understand what you are really taking and whether it is safe for you.

For example, bear in mind that NSAIDs (aspirin in particular) can act as blood thinners and reduce clotting. As such, they are often recommended to protect against heart disease but can put certain individuals at risk of other complications. You may bruise more easily when you are taking NSAIDs, and you may have an increased risk of nausea, upset stomach, or an ulcer. They may also interfere with kidney function.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the following factors can increase the risk of bleeding or developing an ulcer with NSAID use: (2)

  • Taking medicines known as corticosteroids or anticoagulants
  • Using NSAIDs over an extended period
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Older age
  • Poor health

If you are pregnant or have high blood pressure or asthma, you will want to talk with your doctor about using NSAIDs. The same goes for anyone with a history of kidney or liver disease or ulcers and anyone older than 65. You should also tell your doctor about any other medical conditions.

And if you are taking other medications, be sure to tell your doctor about them before you take NSAIDs. These common pain relievers are known to intensify the effects of some medications and lessen the effects of others.

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To reduce risks associated with NSAIDs, the FDA recommends taking them exactly as prescribed, using the lowest effective dose, and taking them only for the shortest time needed.

Even if you and your doctor decide that you can safely take NSAIDs, know the following warning signs of a complication and seek medical attention if you experience them:

  • Nausea
  • Tired or weaker than usual
  • Itching
  • Your skin or eyes look yellow
  • Stomach pain
  • Flu like symptoms
  • Vomiting blood
  • Blood in your bowel movement or black and sticky tarlike stool
  • Unusual weight gain
  • Skin rash or blisters with fever
  • Swelling of the arms and legs, hands, and feet

Call 9-1-1 for emergency treatment if you experience any of the following:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling of the face or throat
  • Weakness in one part or side of your body

With awareness and some precautions, NSAIDs can be used safely, which is welcome news for all of us who appreciate their benefits.


  1. What Are NSAIDs? America Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Accessed June 30, 2014.
  2. Medication Guide for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Accessed June 30, 2014.