Stay Safe When Taking NSAIDs

By Semko, Laura 
March 21, 2017

Stay Safe When Taking NSAIDs

When you suffer from a headache or muscle pain, you probably reach for an over-the-counter remedy. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a popular choice. But even though you can buy them without a prescription, that doesn’t mean they aren’t without risks. Here’s what you need to know to use them properly.

What are NSAIDs?

NSAIDs are a type of medicine used to treat pain and inflammation. They can also reduce fever. They are available by prescription and over the counter (OTC). Higher doses are often prescribed for chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Lower-dose versions are available in stores. They include ibuprofen and naproxen. You may know them better by such brand names as Advil, Motrin, or Aleve.

How do NSAIDs work?

NSAIDs keep the body from making the COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. These enzymes produce prostaglandins, a group of fatty acids found in the body. These fatty acids play a major part in pain and inflammation.

What are their risks?

Experts have long known that NSAIDs can cause bleeding in the stomach. This problem is more likely to occur if a person takes higher doses for a longer period of time. More recently though, research has shown this type of medicine may raise your risk for heart attack and stroke. The FDA requires that the packaging of NSAIDs include a warning about the potential for this serious health threat. People who already have heart disease are most at risk. But anyone who takes prescription or OTC NSAIDs is more prone to such a heart event.

How can you protect yourself?

In general, OTC NSAIDs are a safe and effective choice to ease occasional aches and pains. But you still need to be smart about using them. Follow these best tips to minimize any side effects or health risks:

  • Before taking an OTC NSAID, read the Drug Facts label. It lists active ingredients, warnings, recommended dosages, and other information.

  • Take only the recommended amount for the shortest period of time needed. Higher doses can make health problems more likely. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have taken the medicine for 10 days or more.

  • Be careful about double dosing. Contrary to what some people may think, it may not be safe to take two or more OTC products with the same active ingredient. You’re more likely to suffer side effects or even an overdose. So check the Drug Facts label first before taking more than one OTC remedy. Note: Some cough and cold medicines contain NSAIDs.

  • Talk with your doctor before choosing an OTC NSAID if you take prescription medicine or aspirin. NSAIDs can negatively interact with other drugs used to treat conditions such as depression and high blood pressure. People who take daily aspirin to prevent a heart attack should also not take an NSAID. It can interfere with the positive effects of aspirin.

  • Tell your healthcare provider about all the prescription and OTC medicines you take. He or she can then help you avoid any harmful interactions. 


March 21, 2017


Adverse Drug Reactions and Drug-Drug Interactions with Over-the-Counter NSAIDs. N. Moore, C. Pollack, and P. Butkerait. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. 2015;11:1061-75., Dangerous Double Dosing: How Naïve Beliefs Can Contribute to Unintentional Overdose with Over-the-Counter Drugs. J. Catlin, et al. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. 2015. Published online ahead of print, DOI: 10.1509/jppm.14.061., Safety of Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs in Patients with Cardiovascular Disease. I.M. Danelich, et al. Pharmacotherapy. 2015;35(5):520-35.

Reviewed By:  

Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN