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Aspirin Sensitivity

Some people are allergic to aspirin. Others have a non-allergic sensitivity to it. When they take aspirin, they have symptoms -- sometimes dangerous ones -- even though it’s not an allergy.  

People with aspirin sensitivity often react to other NSAID drugs, too, such as:

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Aspirin Sensitivity Symptoms

If you have aspirin sensitivity, taking aspirin or other NSAIDs may cause:

  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Swelling of  the mouth or throat
  • Headache
  • Stuffiness or runny nose
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping

Asthma and Nasal Polyps

Aspirin sensitivity can go along with other conditions. One combination of problems is called Samter's  triad. It refers to:

  • Reactions to aspirin and NSAIDs
  • Asthma
  • Growths in the nasal passages, called polyps, that can cause nasal passage and sinus problems

Experts aren't sure why these problems tend to show up together. The combination goes by other names, too -- aspirin triad, and aspirin-sensitive asthma.

About 3% to 5% of people with asthma have aspirin sensitivity. Samter's triad is more common in women and symptoms often start in a person's 30s.

Samter's triad causes lasting stuffiness, watery eyes, loss of smell, cough, and other problems. It can also trigger sudden, severe asthma attacks that need emergency treatment.

Managing Aspirin Sensitivity

  • Get help for emergencies. If you have sudden symptoms -- like swelling, difficulty breathing, or wheezing -- call 911 or go to the emergency room. Aspirin sensitivity reactions can be life-threatening.
  • Don’t take aspirin and other NSAIDs. If you have asthma and nasal polyps, your doctor may suggest cutting out aspirin and NSAIDs as a precaution -- even if you've never had any problems with the drugs.
  • Watch out for aspirin in unexpected places. Lots of remedies for cold, flu, cough, stomach problems, and other symptoms contain aspirin or other NSAIDs. Aspirin can even be in cosmetics, soap, shampoos, and skin cleaners.
  • Control your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe steroids depending on your symptoms. If you have asthma, take your medicine to keep it under control.
  • Change your diet. Some foods have high levels of salicylates, natural chemicals that are an ingredient in aspirin. Cutting back on these foods -- like some fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and tea -- may help some people. Ask your doctor.
  • Consider aspirin treatment. To help your body get over its sensitivity to aspirin, your doctor may offer a treatment called desensitization. In it, you will take very small doses of aspirin and then gradually increase them. Your doctor will watch you closely for reactions. If it works, you may be able to take aspirin without problems -- as long as you keep taking it daily. This treatment can help reduce asthma and sinus symptoms, too.
  • Remove nasal polyps. If nasal polyps are a problem for you, your doctor may suggest surgery. Keep in mind that the polyps may grow back.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 22, 2012

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