What is aspirin?

Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) belongs to the salicylate subgroup of the medication class called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Aspirin is used both over-the-counter and by prescription to reduce fevers and relieve pains like headaches or muscle soreness. Under medical supervision, it can help you to treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. If you have a history of stroke, angina, or myocardial infarction (heart attack), your doctor may recommend daily doses of aspirin to prevent further cardiovascular problems and improve your chances of long-term survival. You may also receive aspirin if you may be having a heart attack.
Taken by mouth, aspirin is available in numerous brand names and forms, both over the counter and prescription. Some of the brand names are Aspergum, Bayer, Bufferin, Ecotrin, and Norwich. Aspirin also appears in numerous drug formulations with other medications. Excedrin (Migraine), for example, is an over-the-counter medicine containing aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. Percodan is a prescription-only medicine containing aspirin and oxycodone hydrochloride.

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Aspirin was once an herbal remedy. Its main ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid, is found in willow bark, which has been used to treat headaches for more than 300 years. (Who first decided to chew on bark while they had headache, we'll never know.)

Ever since the German scientist Hermann Dressler isolated aspirin in its chemical form more than a century ago, our vanity cabinet shelves have had one more bottle taking up space.

Aspirin is also the perfect example of the good and bad that come with herbal remedies. It's friendly when used correctly, but downright rabid when abused. Taking a daily aspirin can reduce your heart attack risk because it inhibits blood clotting and inflammation, but the same nuance of chemistry that makes aspirin offer this benefit also makes it acidic enough to cause stomach bleeding and even ulcers.

Taking no more than 162 milligrams of uncoated aspirin a day, drinking a half-glass of warm water before and after swallowing the pill, and taking the pill 1 to 2 hours after eating can reduce that risk.

(It also helps to never confuse aspirin with ibuprofen and acetaminophen —the pain killers in Advil and Tylenol, respectively—because they're completely different drugs.)
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Aspirin is a platelet inhibitor. This means that it helps to stop the blood-clotting parts in your blood (the platelets) from sticking together (or clotting). In turn, this reduces the chance of you having a heart attack or stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.