Every medicine has risks as well as benefits. Perhaps the best example of that is aspirin. It has multiple uses but can also cause severe internal bleeding, even at the low doses referred to as baby aspirin.
This drug is more than a hundred years old, but scientists keep discovering new applications for aspirin beyond its original use to relieve pain and reduce fever. Low-dose aspirin has been recommended for people at high risk of a heart attack because it prevents blood clots. That’s also the reason that aspirin can be helpful for people with heart failure (New England Journal of Medicine, May 17, 2012).
Aspirin has also been found to have anti-cancer activity. One study of 60,000 women found that regular aspirin users were 21 percent less likely to develop melanoma (Cancer, online Mar. 11, 2013). Men could benefit, too: The Physicians’ Health Study found that men who took aspirin three times a week were about 25 percent less likely to be diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer and 39 percent less likely to die from it. (This study was presented at a conference and has not been published yet.)
Nonetheless, aspirin can have very serious side effects (JAMA Internal Medicine, Feb. 13, 2012) and should never be taken for granted. This reader tells why:
Bleeding from Baby Aspirin Led to a Catastrophic Collapse:
Q. A friend of mine, a woman in her 50s, collapsed on the street in Canada with internal bleeding. Only because she was in a big city with quick responders and not out on her boat at sea is she alive today. The cause was the baby aspirin she was taking every day on her doctor’s advice. Even though aspirin may have benefits, it is a mistake to overlook its serious risks.
A. No one really understands why some people can tolerate large doses of aspirin without noticing problems while others may suffer potentially life-threatening bleeding ulcers on a very modest dose of this drug.
In the 1970s doctors were advised to prescribe as much as 6,000 mg of salicylate daily (18 aspirin tablets) for rheumatoid arthritis (The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 4th edition). But even a daily baby aspirin (81 mg) can lead to serious consequences such as your friend experienced.
That is why no one should take aspirin on a regular basis without medical supervision. We offer our free Guide to Key Aspirin Information so you can read more about the pros and cons.