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Surprising Reasons to Take Aspirin (And When to Skip It)

From lowering cancer risk to boosting your beauty regimen, aspirin’s a versatile little pill—but it's important to know the potential side effects.

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Most people know the occasional aspirin can reduce a fever or soothe a headache. But you might not know just how versatile—and life saving—this little pill can be. Here are some surprising uses for the medicine cabinet staple, including when to consider a daily aspirin regimen (and when to skip it all together).

Medically reviewed in April 2018. Updated in September 2018.

Talk to your doctor first

2 / 11 Talk to your doctor first

Yes, aspirin’s readily available over the counter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for you to take every day. The decision to start a daily aspirin regimen should be made carefully between you and your healthcare provider (HCP), based on:

  • Your personal health history, including whether you’re at risk for bleeding
  • Your family medical history, including any relatives who have experienced heart disease, cancer or stroke
  • Any other medications or supplements you take, or teas you drink
  • Your drug allergies, as well as any negative reactions you might have had to aspirin in the past

Your HCP should also weigh in on your dosage (like whether you should take a low-dose “baby aspirin”—typically 81 milligrams—or a larger amount) and how often to take aspirin (like whether you should have it with food and/or more than once a day). 

Who should avoid aspirin?

3 / 11 Who should avoid aspirin?

Aspirin’s considered a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID), a category of medication that also includes naproxen and ibuprofen. If you’re allergic to any NSAIDs, you might experience an allergic reaction to aspirin, too. Avoid it if you’re not sure whether you’re allergic, or ask your doctor about allergy testing to find out.

Those with asthma or nasal polyps are sometimes advised to avoid taking aspirin since it can trigger breathing problems. “People also need to be aware that an aspirin allergy can induce asthma or bronchospasm,” says Tara Wickline, FNP, a nurse practitioner from LewisGale Hospital Pulaski in Pulaski, Virginia. “Aspirin taken as needed for headache or pain on occasion shouldn’t be a problem, but on a daily basis this should be discussed.”

If you have any of the following conditions, your risk of dangerous side effects is especially high:

  • Bleeding disorders
  • Gastric or peptic ulcers
  • Kidney or liver problems
  • Low vitamin K levels
  • Third-trimester pregnancy
Side effects to know about

4 / 11 Side effects to know about

Aspirin’s generally safe, but it can cause mild side effects like heartburn, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation at any dosage. Though less common, some people (especially those with any of the high risk conditions listed on the previous slide) might experience severe side effects that require immediate medical attention, such as: 

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Black, tarry or bloody stools
  • Confusion
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Yellow eyes or skin

Bleeding is another dangerous possible side effect. “Aspirin isn’t advised in people with a history of clotting disorders such as hemophilia,” says Wickline. “Also, if you’re currently taking blood thinners, you shouldn’t begin a daily aspirin regimen on your own. This can increase bleeding risk even further.”

Always ask your HCP about the risks, benefits and your other options before using aspirin daily. Here are some surprising reasons your provider might recommend you start a regimen.

Aspirin may help you live longer

5 / 11 Aspirin may help you live longer

If you take aspirin daily under medical supervision, it might just add an extra candle to your birthday cake. In three meta-analyses—large studies that combine evidence from other, smaller studies—aspirin was found to reduce overall death risk by around 6 to 8 percent. This effect was seen among people taking the drug for at least 10 years.

Read on to learn about national recommendations for the best age to start an aspirin regimen in order to reap this and other key benefits.

It may help ward off colorectal cancer

6 / 11 It may help ward off colorectal cancer

Many studies have linked daily, long-term aspirin use to a lower risk of colon cancer and colon cancer death.

Three studies, involving data collected over 12 years, found that aspirin doses over 75 milligrams decreased colon cancer risk by 40 percent during the studied time period. Another review of four studies revealed regular aspirin takers had a 24 percent lower risk of colon cancer over 20 years of follow up.

Based on these studies and others, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that adults aged 50 to 59 at risk for heart disease take a low-dose daily aspirin to help prevent colorectal cancer. Patients doing so should not be at increased risk for bleeding, should have a life expectancy of at least 10 years and should be willing to take a daily low-dose aspirin for at least 10 years. And again, aspirin should always be taken under careful supervision by your HCP.

Read more about colon cancer screening and prevention.

A daily dose may cut breast cancer risk, too

7 / 11 A daily dose may cut breast cancer risk, too

More research is needed to learn if—and how much—aspirin may help fend off other cancers. One study involving data from six drug trials found that taking daily aspirin at any dose dropped overall cancer rates by up to 30 percent after five years.

This is promising, but when the USPSTF looked at data from six other trials, they didn’t find any significant impact on cancer risk over 3 to 10 years.

What happens when researchers look at specific types of cancer? The results are still often mixed (except when it comes to colon cancer). However, one large 2017 study—based on data collected over 32 years—suggests aspirin may impact breast and prostate cancer risk:

  • Men who regularly took aspirin were 23 percent less likely to die from prostate cancer.
  • Women had an 11 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer.
It can help you survive a heart attack

8 / 11 It can help you survive a heart attack

Alright, this one’s probably not a surprise. But it’s must-know stuff! So we’ll say it again: If you experience heart attack symptoms, call 9-1-1 and—if the operator tells you it’s safe and/or your healthcare provider told you to do so previously—chew a 325 mg dose of aspirin immediately. (Chewing helps it reach your bloodstream quickly). The sooner you do both, the better your chances of surviving the heart attack with minimal damage.

Why is aspirin essential? Heart attacks start when an area of plaque bursts open in an artery. Sticky blood cells called platelets then travel to the area to try to contain or wall off the ruptured plaque. This process causes blood cells to build up, forming a clot that may keep oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart. If it’s not stopped, this blockage can kill healthy heart tissue. Aspirin helps by keeping the platelets from clumping together.

Note: You should NOT take aspirin if you experience stroke symptoms because some strokes are caused by brain bleeds and aspirin can make them worse.

It can help you recover after surgery

9 / 11 It can help you recover after surgery

After some heart procedures like a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) or angioplasty, your HCP may recommend aspirin daily for life. It’s essential to stick with this regimen because:

  • After a CABG, it can help your graft—the healthy vessel that gets connected to a blocked artery to bypass a clot—stay open and prevent complications.
  • After angioplasty, it can keep platelets from clumping to and blocking off your stent—the mesh that’s inserted in a blocked vessel to help keep it open.

Aspirin’s often recommended after a host of other surgeries, as well, since it can help prevent a common complication called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a type of blood clot. (Lying in bed for long periods during recovery raises your risk of developing a DVT.)

Your beauty routine could use some aspirin

10 / 11 Your beauty routine could use some aspirin

Aspirin’s an anti-inflammatory,” says Wickline. “And acne results from skin inflammation. Aspirin can reduce the redness and swelling associated with outbreaks, so some folks apply crushed, damp aspirin to their acne.”

Aspirin may help address these common beauty complaints:

  • Acne: Aspirin contains salicylic acid, an active ingredient in many acne treatments. Crush an aspirin, mix it with water to make a paste and apply it to trouble spots.
  • Dandruff: “Salicylic acid is used in dandruff shampoos to decrease flaking, as well,” says Wickline. Crush aspirin and add it to your shampoo for a simple home remedy. Let it sit on your scalp for about five minutes, then rinse. (Don’t add to shampoo that already contains dandruff-fighting ingredients.)
  • Razor-burn: Crush aspirin and mix it with water to form a paste. Place it on irritated areas after shaving to ease stinging and redness. Let the paste dry on your skin before rinsing away.
Can it cure a hangover?

11 / 11 Can it cure a hangover?

Do not use aspirin to treat a hangover. You may still have alcohol in your bloodstream the morning after drinking. Aspirin plus alcohol can irritate your stomach’s lining. Some people, like daily aspirin takers or drinkers, should especially avoid the combination since it ups their risk of gastric bleeding. Consider these safe tips for easing your hangover instead. 

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