We tend to think of over-the-counter painkillers as perfectly safe. If you
can buy a drug sitting next to the toothpaste and shampoo, how dangerous could
But even these drugs do have risks. And if you
have an ulcer, you need to be very careful before popping over-the-counter
(OTC) painkillers. Many commonplace drugs - such as aspirin, Advil, and Aleve --
can irritate the stomach lining, aggravating ulcers and potentially causing
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"People think that if a medicine is available over-the-counter, it has no
risks," says Byron Cryer, MD, a spokesman for the American Gastroenterological
Association. "But about a third of all ulcers are caused by aspirin and other
painkillers. More than half of all bleeding ulcers are caused by these
In fact, according to the American Gastroenterological Association, 103,000
people are hospitalized every year because of side effects from common
painkillers. Some 16,500 people die.
The problem isn't only with OTC painkillers. Many remedies for colds, sinus
problems, and even heartburn contain the same
potentially dangerous ingredients.
If you have an ulcer, you need to avoid any foods or medicines that will
make your condition worse. So, before you grab a bottle of pain reliever the
next time you have a headache, learn some dos and
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 in response. 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 Ulcers?
Why do painkillers increase the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) problems? The
same chemicals that amplify pain -- which some pain medicines block -- also
help maintain the protective lining of the stomach and intestines. When a
painkiller stops these chemicals from working, the digestive tract becomes more
vulnerable to damage from gastric acids.
For people with ulcers, the risky pain relievers are nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. They include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen
sodium, and ketoprofen, the active ingredients in medicines such as Bufferin,
Advil, and Aleve.
Other pain relievers may be less dangerous. Acetaminophen -- the active
ingredient in Tylenol -- works differently and poses a much lower risk of GI
problems. However, 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.