Aspirin is a widely available over-the-counter medication that shows substantial effects at promoting survival and reducing risk of many types of cancer, plus reducing inflammation and managing pain due to inflammation.
Safety and precautions
All nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including aspirin can have serious, even life-threatening side effects. Use them only under medical supervision.
Modest evidencesignificant effects in at least three small but well-designed randomized controlled trials (RCTs), or one or more well-designed, mid-sized clinical studies of reasonably good quality (RCTs or observational studies), or several small studies aggregated into a meta-analysis (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of substantially increased all-cause mortalitydeath, or the death rate in a population; cancer studies often report all-cause mortality (death from any cause) and cancer-specific mortality (death due to the cancer under investigation) among people with postmenopausal hormone receptor-positive breast cancer using low-dose aspirin (81 mg or less)
- Substantially worse (67% higher) all-cause mortality among people with postmenopausal hormone receptor-positive breast cancer using low-dose aspirin (81 mg or less) compared to no use in a large observational study1Strasser-Weippl K, Higgins MJ et al. Effects of celecoxib and low-dose aspirin on outcomes in adjuvant aromatase inhibitor-treated patients: CCTG MA.27. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2018 Sep 1;110(9):1003-1008.
Extreme caution is advised for people with low body weight, as shown in a pooled analysis of 10 very large RCTsrandomized controlled trial, a study design in which people are randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a control group to compare the outcomes from different treatments; an RCT is considered a strong design for determining a therapy’s effects:2Rothwell PM, Cook NR et al. Effects of aspirin on risks of vascular events and cancer according to bodyweight and dose: analysis of individual patient data from randomised trials. Lancet. 2018 Aug 4;392(10145):387-399.
- Higher risk of sudden death among people using aspirin with low body weight for the dose received
- 52% higher all-cause mortality among people weighing less than 50 kg (110 pounds) receiving 75–100 mg of aspirin
- 20% higher 3-year risk of cancer among people aged 70 years or older using aspirin, especially those weighing less than 70 kg (154 pounds)
One study found a trend toward higher risk of cancer progression among elderly patients with stage 3 or 4 cancers using aspirin.3McNeil JJ, Gibbs P et al. Effect of aspirin on cancer incidence and mortality in older adults. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2020;djaa114.
Caution is advised for those with hypertension or risk factors for gastrointestinal bleeding. Discontinuing use of aspirin and other NSAIDs among cancer patients is not advised in one review, but the authors recommend careful monitoring for side effects such as cardiovascular events (with COX-2 inhibitors) or gastrointestinal bleeding.4Solheim TS, Fearon KC, Blum D, Kaasa S. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory treatment in cancer cachexia: a systematic literature review. Acta Oncologica. 2013 Jan;52(1):6-17.
Side effects or adverse events
Aspirin can have many side effects, some potentially very serious. For this reason, we highly recommend having a physician monitor your use and guide you in looking for indications of any serious conditions.
Common side effects:5Aspirin Tablet Side Effects by Likelihood and Severity. Web MD. Viewed February 8, 2021; Cook NR, Lee IM, Zhang SM, Moorthy MV, Buring JE. Alternate-day, low-dose aspirin and cancer risk: long-term observational follow-up of a randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013 Jul 16;159(2):77-85.
- Allergic reactions, including potentially serious reactions
- Bleeding, including bleeding of the stomach or intestines or within the skull
- Excess stomach acid secretion
- Gastrointestinal upset, nausea or ulcers (risk of ulcers is increased with alcohol use)
- Stomach cramps
- Worsening asthma symptoms
Rare side effects:6Aspirin Tablet Side Effects by Likelihood and Severity. Web MD. Viewed February 8, 2021; McNeil JJ, Wolfe R et al, ASPREE Investigator Group. Effect of aspirin on cardiovascular events and bleeding in the healthy elderly. New England Journal of Medicine. 2018 Oct 18;379(16):1509-1518..
- Decreased appetite
- Difficulty breathing
- Liver damage and inflammation
- Ringing in the ears
- Skin blistering or hives
Do not use (contraindications)
Allergic reactions to aspirin can be fatal. If you suspect or know you are allergic to aspirin or salicylates, do not use aspirin.
The US Food and Drug Administration cautions that some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including those in over-the-counter products such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can interfere with the antiplatelet action of low-dose aspirin used for cardioprotection.7FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA strengthens warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause heart attacks or strokes. US Food and Drug Administration. February 2, 2015. Viewed October 21, 2021.
Aspirin can also potentially interact with blood thinners, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, various antihypertensives, methotrexate, steroids, valproic acid, ginkgo biloba, and other drugs. Be sure to mention to your physician that you are taking any of these medications before using aspirin.
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