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The Benefits and Risks of Aspirin

Jeremy EbertAspirin has been used since ancient times to relieve pain and inflammation. Today, aspirin is often recommended for patients who have suffered heart attacks or strokes. But what are the risks you should be aware of? Below are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about this important medication.

Why do some people take aspirin?

Many people take an aspirin a day based on a recommendation from their family physician or heart doctor. Some people take aspirin to prevent heart disease, heart attack, or a stroke. People who already have had a heart attack, have experienced certain kinds of strokes, or have other diagnosed heart disease take aspirin to help keep them from having another heart attack or stroke. 

How does aspirin help?

Aspirin works by keeping your blood cells from clumping together. These clumps or “clots” can block blood vessels in the heart and the brain. When these vessels are blocked, nutrients and oxygen cannot reach parts of the heart or brain. The lack of blood to areas of the heart is the main cause of heart attack. The lack of blood to areas of the brain is one cause of a stroke.

Are there any risks to taking aspirin?

Aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding in the stomach, small intestine, and brain. Normally, there is a layer that protects the insides of the stomach and intestine from the acid in your stomach. If aspirin is taken at high doses and for a long time, it can slowly damage this layer. This damage can lead to bleeding. Using aspirin to prevent blood clots can also affect the natural healing of damaged blood vessels and increase the risk of bleeding in the brain.

Does the risk of heart disease outweigh the risk of bleeding?

Benefits of daily low-dose aspirin therapy outweigh the risks for certain people. These people include those who have had a heart attack or stroke, who have heart disease, or who have diabetes, according to the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the American Diabetes Association.

If you have heart disease or diabetes or have had a heart attack or stroke, your doctor may have already told you to take aspirin. But if you smoke, have high cholesterol, or have a strong family history of heart disease, it is important to discuss other options with your doctor. 

Talk to your doctor or your pharmacist if you have questions.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks before starting an aspirin regimen. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider if you will benefit from a daily aspirin and if you are at risk for bleeding. It’s important to understand the benefits and risks of taking a daily aspirin.

By Jeremy A. Ebert, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, St. Rita’s Medical Center, Lima, Ohio