People Still Ignore Pain Reliever Risks

Many Still Overuse Popular Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers, Raising Risks of Side Effects

From the WebMD Archives

May 20, 2004 -- More people may be aware of the risks associated with the popular over-the-counter pain relievers, but a new study shows that awareness doesn't necessarily mean action.

Researchers found awareness of the safety issues surrounding over-the-counter pain relievers, such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and acetaminophen, has grown significantly in the last five years, but more people are using the drugs inappropriately.

NSAIDs include aspirin and drugs containing ibuprofen or naproxen, such as Advil and Aleve. Acetaminophen is found in Tylenol.

The study showed that the percentage of Americans that said they were concerned about side effects associated with over-the-counter pain relievers rose from 18% in 1997 to 59% in 2003. But the number of participants who said they took more than the recommended dose of the drugs nearly doubled during that time period.

Researchers say NSAIDs are one of the leading causes of stomach ulcers and have been associated with side effects from stomach upset to potentially life-threatening stomach bleeding. NSAID use and misuse leads to more than 103,000 hospitalizations and 16,500 deaths each year in the U.S. Taking more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

Taking these medications long term and without the knowledge of a doctor significantly increases the chance of having a complication from these drugs -- even a potentially life-threatening problem.

Lost Safety Message on Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

In the study, which was presented this week at a meeting of digestive disease experts, researchers combined the results of two separate surveys on consumer's perceptions of over-the-counter pain relievers.

The first was conducted in 1997 by Roper Starch and involved 258 adults. The second was commissioned by the National Consumer League in 2003 and included more than 3,500 adults.

The study showed people are becoming more aware of the safety issues related to over-the-counter pain relievers, but that awareness isn't being translated into safer behavior. For example, 44% reported taking more than the recommended dose of an over-the-counter pain reliever in 2003 compared with 26% in 1997.

Among the other findings:

  • Fewer take over-the-counter pain relievers daily (27% in 1997 vs. 15% in 2003).
  • More are using an acetaminophen-based pain reliever (14% vs. 45%).

  • About the same number are taking naproxen- and ibuprofen-based pain relievers and aspirin.

  • More are concerned about side effects (18% vs. 59%).

In addition, the 2003 survey showed 33% of respondents said that it was safe to combine over-the-counter pain relievers with prescription NSAIDs.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 20, 2004


SOURCES: Digestive Disease Week 2004, New Orleans, May 15-20, 2004. WebMD Medical News: "When Relieving the Pain Raises the Risk."

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