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Everyday Pain Relief: Asthma

Many common over-the-counter pain relief drugs can cause harmful side effects, such as breathing problems, for people with asthma. Here's what you need to know.
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WebMD Feature

If you have asthma, you most likely work hard to avoid triggers. You shut the windows when the air is thick with pollen. You steer clear of homes with pets. You banish smokers to your front porch.

But did you know that a potentially serious asthma trigger might be sitting in your medicine cabinet right now?

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The culprit is aspirin, that trusted wonder drug, along with other common over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers. These are medicines we use without thinking twice. But in about one in five people with asthma, these drugs can make symptoms worsen. They can even cause dangerous or even fatal reactions.

"It happens a lot more than people realize," says Phillip E. Korenblat, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. "If you went to any ER right now, you'd be likely to see people with asthma who were there because of a bad reaction to these drugs."

The problem doesn't end with OTC painkillers. In fact, many remedies for colds, sinus problems, and even indigestion contain the same potentially dangerous ingredients.

So before you grab a bottle of pain reliever for that headache, you need to learn some dos and don'ts.

How Do Pain-Relief Drugs Work?

In a certain way, all pain is in your head. When we feel pain, it's the result of an electrical signal being sent from the nerves in a part of your body to your brain.

But the whole process isn't electrical. When tissue is injured (by a sprained ankle, for instance), the cells release certain chemicals. These chemicals cause inflammation and amplify the electrical signal coming from the nerves. As a result, they increase the pain you feel.

Painkillers work by blocking the effects of these pain chemicals. The problem is that you can't focus most pain relievers specifically on your headache or bad back. Instead, it travels through your whole body. This can cause some unexpected side effects.

What Are the Risks for People with Asthma?

If you have asthma, painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be risky. They include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen, the active ingredients in medicines like Bufferin, Advil, and Aleve.

Other pain relievers are potentially less dangerous. Acetaminophen -- the active ingredient in Tylenol -- works differently. It poses a much lower risk of problems for people with asthma, although like any drug, it does have side effects of its own. You shouldn't take any over-the-counter painkiller for more than 10 days without your health care provider's approval.

Why are people with asthma at special risk from NSAIDs? Experts aren't sure of the exact cause, but it seems that these medicines can trigger a dangerous immune response leading to constriction of the airways. People who are older and who have more severe asthma may be more sensitive to these drugs.

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