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                                                               The ‘Old’ Wonder Drug – Aspirin

Or Can There be Drawbacks ?

Barely a day goes by when we don’t hear of yet another incredible, and often life-saving, property of good, old fashioned Aspirin. The precursor of Aspirin, or acetyl salicylic acid, as it is scientifically known, was officially discovered by Johann Buchner who was Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Munich. Actually, good old Hippocrates, who lived around 500BC, wrote of the pain relieving properties of the leaves and bark of Willow trees but it was Buchner who isolated salicin in 1828. The problem was that salicin was tough on stomachs and so by buffering it with acetyl choline and sodium, acetyl salicylic acid was formed in 1858 by a French Chemist named Charles Frederic Gerhardt. Trouble was that he didn’t think it was important and neither marketed it or patent it and it was left until 1899 when a German chemist named Felix Hoffmann, who worked for a German company called Bayer, rediscovered Gerhardt's formula. Hoffmann made some of the formula and gave it to his father who was suffering from the pain of arthritis with good results. Hoffmann then convinced Bayer to market the new wonder drug and Aspirin was patented on February 27, 1900.

Since then the list of achievements attributable to Aspirin has grown and grown. As well as being an effective pain killer, it can reduce fever, has anti inflammatory properties in arthritis and is widely renowned for its anti blood clotting ability which can help prevent heart attacks, strokes and blood clot formation. There are even studies in progress relating to Aspirin’s properties in cancer prevention ! It is little wonder therefore to be able to tell you that some 40,000 tonnes of Aspirin are consumed each year !

But in every good chain there is a weak link and in the case of drugs and medicine there are unwanted side effects – Aspirin is no exception. Let me tell you a short story at the end of which will be a bit of advice.

Under the advice and orders from the cardiologist in Australia where I had a suspected heart attack in 2002, I started taking 75mg of aspirin a day. Naturally, and not wishing to pay prescription fees for something so cheap, I bought them over the counter at the chemist and religiously took one every morning – it almost became a thoughtless habit, out of bed, have a wee (prostate OK!), get dressed, cup of tea, take aspirin, clean teeth and off to work.

It was about 2007 when I noticed that I was getting indigestion with increasing frequency. Rarely did a day go past when discomfort in my upper abdomen wasn’t noticed and my consumption of antacids became a talking point at home. Of course I thought about the aspirin but, for goodness sake, a paltry 75 mg when the recommended dose for a headache or toothache is 600mg ! And so I put up with it until one day the pain was so severe I went to the GP who did an ECG and stress test – ‘pleased to tell you’ he said, ‘that your heart is in excellent shape’. Good news indeed but it didn’t make the pain go away.

The next stage was a referral to a gastroenterologist who took me into hospital for a day and put what looked like a 1 inch hosepipe down my throat ! ‘You’re fine’ was the report, ‘no cancer, no ulcers, no hernias, just a little inflammation but nothing significant, just ease off on the alcohol and stop taking the occasional ibuprofen’. No mention was made of my paltry 75 mg of aspirin. What a relief I thought until the following day when my pain was back with a vengeance.

And so it went on. Daily stomach discomfort radiating through to my back, Copious quantities of antacids and Omeprazole (for indigestion) and wild thoughts about things like lung disease, aneurisms and spinal pain referring through to the front. And then something simple happened – I ran out of my 75 mg aspirin tablets and being the lazy devil I am, I thought that I could survive a few days without them because we will be going shopping next Monday, I’ll get them then.

Just 72 hours later I woke without any pain and, following my morning routine, the missing aspirin tablet came into my mind. ‘Surely not’ I thought, ‘I’ll give it a few more days’. Those days passed into a week and I was feeling better than I had for many months. Now, some 3 months later, the cause of my problem was clear – just a miserly 75 mg of aspirin a day. Yes my heart must have benefited tremendously but that’s more than can be said of my well being !

And so the moral behind the story – salicin is tough on stomachs whether it is turned into aspirin or not. Yes, you need your daily aspirin to look after you in terms of heart disease and strokes, but take it in a form which does not cause problems – enteric coated aspirin, the type which is covered with a coating that controls the location in the digestive system where it is absorbed (in the small bowel) without any side affects. There are lots of different types and manufacturers available but all of them have the same function – to stop the aspirin attacking and causing inflammation in the stomach with its subsequent pain and suffering.

Do I feel better ? You can bet your life I do !

Barrie Davies


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