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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.

What Are the Risks for People with Asthma? continued...

Symptoms include a cough, runny nose, shortness of breath, and wheezing. In some people, these medicines can also cause swelling of the face or hives. If you have any reaction, get help right away.

"One problem is that people may not realize the connection between asthma and a painkiller," Korenblat tells WebMD. "It can take up to two hours for the medicine to cause the effect, so you may not see the link."

In general, it's best for people with asthma to avoid NSAIDs. And people with asthma who also have sinus problems or nasal polyps -- swollen tissue that grows from the sinuses into the nasal passages -- should not use any NSAIDs, says Korenblat. "The risks of using these medicines are much higher for them."

Asthma treatments may help. Korenblat says the asthma medicines Singulair and Accolate may partially protect people from bad reactions to NSAIDs. Some doctors "desensitize" people to NSAIDs by giving them small doses and gradually increasing them over time. Eventually, your body may be better able to tolerate the NSAID and won't have such a dangerous reaction. However, this process must be done in a medical setting, since even tiny amounts of these drugs can trigger a dangerous asthma attack.

So what's a person with asthma and an aching back to do? "I tell my patients with asthma that if they have a choice, they should take acetaminophen, such as Tylenol," says Korenblat. "If they have to take an NSAID, I just tell them to be careful and watch for problems."

Other Options for Pain Relief

Of course, painkillers aren't the only answer for many of life's aches and pains. Many effective and safe alternatives don't have any side effects at all.

  • Ice packs, for acute injuries like a sprained ankle, can keep down swelling and ease pain.
  • Heat -- with a hot towel or heating pad -- can be helpful for treating chronic overuse injuries. (However, you shouldn't use heat on recent injuries.)
  • Physical activity can help reduce some kinds of discomfort, such as arthritis pain.
  • Relaxation -- with techniques like yoga or meditation -- may reduce pain. Biofeedback may help as well. These approaches are best for pain that's made worse by stress, like tension headaches.
  • Nontraditional techniques with low risks -- like acupuncture -- benefit some people.

So remember: Pain relief doesn't only come from a pill bottle.

The Pros and Cons of Pain-Relief Drugs

For those times when you do need a dose of pain relief, you need to make a smart choice. Here's a rundown of the benefits and risks of some popular pain medications. It should help simplify your choices the next time you're in the drugstore.

Keep in mind that you shouldn't use any over-the-counter painkiller on a regular basis. If you're in that much pain, you need to talk with your health care provider.

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