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What Are the Long-Term Effects of Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers?

Updated on January 7, 2012

Almost everyone has had pain before Not severe pain, not enough to warrant a doctor visit or rush to the emergency room. Just the plain old everyday headaches, cramps, bumps, bruises, and boo-boos that send us reaching for the bottle in the cabinet. Over-the-counter pain relievers have become a part of everyday life, but many people are not aware of the dangers of long-term use of our NSAID friends, which can be severe and life-threatening.

What Are They?

Most over-the-counter pain relievers are NSAIDS, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These work by acting as inhibitors on the enzyme cyclooxygenase, which otherwise would produce the molecules that cause pain, swelling, and clotting. They can effectively stop mild to moderate pain, without the possible mental side-effects of narcotic pain killers.

Today, almost every household in America has a bottle of pain relievers, each one equipped with the warning label we have all become accustomed to. Studies on these drugs prove that in most cases, the positive effects outweigh the negative, however, in an unfortunate few, the risks can be far worse than they ever thought.

Gastrointestinal Problems

All NSAIDs have the risk of causing gastrointestinal (GI) problems in people who take them, especially when taken regularly for a long time. The medicines can cause wear and tear on the GI tract, which can lead to stomach pain, ulcers, bleeding, or even death. One study conducted in 2000 by the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Oxford showed that people who take aspirin long-term show a "significant increase in the incidence of gastrointestinal hemorrhage."

The risks of GI problems go up in people that have a history of GI problems or eat or drink substances that are harmful to the GI tract along with taking a NSAID, such as alcohol. Drug companies have been trying to find ways to make their medicines less harmful to the stomach and intestines, however, the effectiveness of these methods are still not known.

Bleeding Problems

One of the benefits of NSAIDs, especially aspirin, is the blood-thinning effects, which is why it is often recommended to help reduce risk of ischemic stroke or heart attack. Unfortunately, the medicines may also cause bleeding problems.

Bleeding problems that have been attributed to NSAIDs, besides GI bleeding, is high blood pressure and bleeding in the brain. Micro-bleeding in the brain is thought to be linked to taking NSAIDs, which can lead to hemorrhagic strokes, especially in those who are already at risk.

Reye's Syndrome

Reye's Syndrome is a deadly disease, the risk of which is thought to be increased by the use of aspirin, especially in children. It primarily affects the liver, causing fat to build up in it, and the brain, causing inflammation. The disease causes a lot of damage to almost every organ in the body, eventually leading to coma, organ failure, or death.

For this reason, the CDC and the FDA have advised that giving aspirin to children ages 18 or under should be done only after consulting with a doctor, especially in cases where fever is present.

Other Problems

Other problems that have been attributed to long-term NSAID use include:

  • Photosensitivity (more easily sunburned)
  • Fluid retention
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Diarrhea
  • Noise sensitivity or increased hearing loss
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Kidney problems or kidney failure


In order to better understand if you are at higher risk of seeing any ill-effects associated with over-the-counter pain relievers, be sure to talk to your doctor before you start taking them, or if you develop severe symptoms. As with any medicine, carefully monitor your dosage. Remember, just because a drug is "over-the-counter" does not mean there are no risks involved with taking it!


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    • profile image

      Mary 6 years ago

      I took too much ibuprofen for an extended period of time. Wow, that was a mistake. I now have a very sensitive stomach. I was taking it for back pain at work. I finally realized I don't sit properly for a 40 hour work week! I took an online course in ergonomics and am doing better.

    • Jennie Demario profile image

      Venture Boyz 6 years ago from Floating in the clouds

      I always try to use ibuprofen over acetaminophen.. I have read a lot about acetaminophen making peoples liver bleed. Sometimes when I get headaches the best medicine is a shot of caffeine.. like a strong coffee or such..

    • wished4u profile image

      wished4u 6 years ago

      Very well done. It was a great article and information you have highlighted is often ignored by the general public.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 6 years ago from Oakley, CA

      synthetics are never as healthy....and "big pharma" doesn't care. Their only concern, as you mention, is their own "bottom line." :-|

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thank you! I'm so excited about it as well :)

      In my research, I did come across the history of aspirin, with the willow tree. It is a little bit shocking to think of how common it is all across the country, but I suppose you cannot patent a willow tree...funny how that works. Although, the same could be said of medical marijuana. The pharmaceutical industry is working to create synthetic versions of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in order to market it to the public. The difference is, you could patent a synthetic version. Obviously, they believe that the real thing works, or they would not be wasting their time with a fake version, so it would follow that the real version, although not as profitable to a single company, would be just as healthy.

      The drug and pharmacy corporations of the world are pretty silly that way...

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 6 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Wow!! Only a member for 6 weeks, and already got Hub of the Day! Woo-Hoo! Congratulations!

      Very well-done article, indeed.

      Good job with your explanations for those who don't understand terms such as NSAIDs. Medicine interests me, so I read enough to be familiar with those abbreviations, but so many are not, and unexplained abbreviations can be frustrating.

      Did you know that aspirin originates from willow tree bark, which was chewed for pain relief among the Native Americans?

      As far as natural pain relief goes, there are few herbs out there with as many different uses, NO harmful side effects to speak of, and non-addictive, as cannabis. If you are lucky enough to live in a state that has legalized it for medical use, take advantage! If you are not so lucky, start lobbying! ;-)

      Great hub--voted up and useful.

    • AllSuretyBonds profile image

      AllSuretyBonds 6 years ago

      I get headaches frequently and it is sometimes easy to just grab medicine to try to fix the immediate pain but it so true that you have to be careful of not taking too much medicine. Great hub.

    • thranax profile image

      Andrew 6 years ago from Rep Boston MA

      Great hub. I took 3 cvs pain relievers for my back today and now my organs hurt. (I know its mental but people make themselves sick by thinking they are =[) I know my organs are still fine but still...good thing I only take them rarely (2-4 times every 2-3 months).

      Thanks for sharing,


    • thoughtfulgirl2 profile image

      thoughtfulgirl2 6 years ago from East Coast

      Excellent hub, I knew about a lot of the things you listed, but I didn't know about bleeding in the brain. You do learn something new everyday. Great hub:)

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thank you very much! Getting into narcotic pain relief is a whole new ballgame. Like I've said before, I've dealt with chronic pain both headaches and from a hereditary back problem, and I know that the narcotics seem like the only things that can help, but there's a very high cost for the short amount of time they actually work! I so hope that you find something that works for you that is healthy and makes you feel better!

    • profile image

      JasJay 6 years ago

      Really useful and interesting article that we should all read. Thanks and well done!

    • kmackey32 profile image

      kmackey32 6 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

      Great job on getting the hub of the day and you have only posted 14 hubs. Its scary I take over the counter pain relievers on a daily basis. Years ago I was perscribed narcotics and I do not ever want to be on those again eithor.

    • softhard profile image

      softhard 6 years ago from Kathmandu

      I get headaches often( 2-3 times a month). Will think of before taking pills. May be i can think of some natural remedies like meditation,proper sleep, etc. thanks

      Very informative hub. and congrats for the hub of the day.

    • stacirenae89 profile image

      stacirenae89 6 years ago

      Very informative! Congrats on hub of the day! I need to tell my family about this!

    • SkeptiMommy profile image

      SkeptiMommy 6 years ago

      Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Very good hub with crucial information for people who take pain relievers. (By the way, congrats for the accolade.)

      I keep trying to warn family and friends not to take so much aspirin (especially the powdered kind) or acetaminophen because of the dangers. When people have recurring headaches or other severe pain, they don't want you to tell them that what they're taking to try and stop the pain may have dangers.

      Thanks for putting this message out there!


    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub with a lot of useful advice about OTC pain relievers. Congratulations on the Hub of the Day accolade. Love the clever photo with pills shaped in form of question mark. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 6 years ago from Northern, California

      What really great hub! I know plenty of folks who take aspirine therapy, makes me really stop and think about OTC pain pills. Very informative work. You got my vote!

      Welcome to HubPages!



    • Katya Drake profile image

      Katya Drake 6 years ago from Wisconsin

      Yeah I'm working on it. I've had migraines since I was 10 but they were not diagnosed as such til I was 18. My doc thinks that it may be hormone problems b/c I did not have any while I was pregnant with my boys. We'll see if hormone therapy helps! I'll look into the tension thing too. I also work in a call center!

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Katya Drake- I used to get a lot of headaches too! I even went out and got glasses hoping that would help, but it didn't. It turned out for me, it was tension headaches from sitting at my computer all day (and my previous job, sitting at a computer all day at a call center) and I started learning about massage therapy and "trigger-point" massage. Those two combined with the glasses and learning a few stretches for my neck and shoulders helped HEAPS! I really hope you can find something that works for you. Chronic pain is such a drag!

    • Katya Drake profile image

      Katya Drake 6 years ago from Wisconsin

      Congrats on the hub of the day nod! This is a very well written hub and very informative. You deserve it girl! I actually take a lot of IB Profen because I get migraines. Since this medicine works my doctor wont prescribe me anything else because the side effects of prescription meds can be worse! Sometimes we have to pick the lesser of two evils I guess.

    • Darknlovely3436 profile image

      Annie 6 years ago from NewYork

      Congratulation for the hub of the day great hub.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Me again, but I wanted to say congrats! So glad to see this important topic highlighted.

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Wow, thanks for all of the wonderful feedback! Tylenol (like anything else) has it's own risks, you are right. As for alternative medicine, there's so much out there, because so many people are in pain! I've heard a lot about valerian root (which is stinky but I take it to help me sleep occasionally) helping some mild pain since it is also a very mild muscle relaxer.

      The best thing you can do, for alternative or any kind of pain treatment is to research it thoroughly. Know what the effects are and whether or not they have even been studied!

      @kimh039-It is kind of shocking when that happens, but many people mistake them as being perfectly safe because they are widely available. Not always the case! Especially with children!

      @applecsmith- That is terrifying! I really hope your boss recovered okay! Also, thanks for the compliment on the picture, I was quite proud of that myself! xD

      Again, thank you all for reading and for the feedback and compliments. It makes my day :)

    • profile image

      virsingh 6 years ago

      Thanks for providing Good information... Must consult doctor before taking any medicine...

    • brsmom68 profile image

      Diane Ziomek 6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Good information; and yes, Tylenol does have its own set of side effects when taken for long periods of time. I have arthritis and have taken both at different times. The NSAIDs do help, but irritate my stomach. I only take them when the pain gets to be too much to handle; I am interested in trying alternative medicine and the Curamin sounds like it may be something to try. Thank you for the well written Hub and congratulations on Hub of the Day!

    • bluebird profile image

      bluebird 6 years ago

      Thanks for the info - important information!

      Have you heard of the natural pain reliever called Curamin? It features clinically proven BCM-95® bioavailable curcumin, which is the Indian spice turmeric, a member of the ginger family.

      This is an excellent alternative to OTDs! Just thought I'd share that for everyone's benefit.

    • DIY Backlinks profile image

      DIY Backlinks 6 years ago

      Good information, my wife is actually allergic to aspirin and can only take ibuprofen.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      Great hub! Of course, then there is Tylenol.. which is not an NSAID, but can cause liver damage if taken too frequently. It is great to highlight the dangers of OTC drugs - many people pop them like candy, but the side effects are real!

    • applecsmith profile image

      Carrie Smith 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      I just noticed the picture with the pills in a shape of a question mark (?) very clever!

    • delmer47 profile image

      delmer47 6 years ago from Nebraska

      Great hub.....voted up and useful :-)

    • applecsmith profile image

      Carrie Smith 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Congrats on being featured as the Hub of the Day. I am so glad to have found this post as I have always wondered what the side effects of supposedly "harmless" over the counter drugs. I have always been apprehensive about taking any kind of medications, but ever since I came to work and found my boss passed out on the bathroom floor from a bleeding ulcer caused by aspirin, I have been even more cautious.

      Thanks for shedding some light on this subject. Voted up and useful.

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 6 years ago

      I've often wondered about the long term effects of Tylenol PM. I'm guessing it must have NSAID. I'll check though. My sister in law gave my daughter aspirin once for a fever and I couldn't believe she didn't know not to! I thought everyone knew that. Thanks for the information nikki_m and congrats on the nomination.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 6 years ago from Jamaica

      Many people don't even realize that over the counter drugs can have such side effects. I am hypertensive so I have to be careful what drugs I take. You have outlined your information very well.

      Congrats on making the hub of the day!

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thank you everyone, for reading, voting, and the congrats!

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Anything that is overly used is harmful for the body. This is a very helpful and informative hub.

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination from ripplemaker and the Hubnuggets team. To read and vote, this way please: Best of luck!

    • peterhark69 profile image

      peterhark69 6 years ago from Canada

      Thanks for sharing this. I never knew some of the side effects you listed here. Nevertheless, most people are aware that medication isn't really all positive because there must always be a negative side of it. Nice post!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      Very important information for people to be aware of. Thanks for the summary. I try to limit the OTC medicine (or any at all for that matter) that I take or have my children take. Congrats on your nomination and welcome to Hubpages.

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      .josh., Thanks so much for the compliments! I actually had been trying to figure out all day where the extra traffic was coming from. I had no idea this Hub had been nominated! Woot!

    • .josh. profile image

      .josh. 6 years ago

      Yikes, might have to think over that decision to take an ibuprofen next time I've got a headache. Really well written hub, Nikki, as you really lay out the science in a pretty accessible way.

      Congrats on the nomination!

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thanks for visiting everyone!

      Yes, there's always a catch it seems to quick cures, but the "longer" cures like lifestyle changes and stretches seem so inconvenient. It's all a balancing act between results now and consequences later.

      @Manthy: I think that number might be modest if you count all of the accidental poisoning and secondary conditions caused by pain relievers (such as the Reye's Syndrome or severe gastrointestinal issues that won't always be traced back to the pain relievers themselves). Pretty scary...

    • manthy profile image

      Mark 6 years ago from Alabama,USA

      They don't report it but around 3k people in the USA die from taking pain relievers.

      Nice hub with good pics and content - Voted up and useful.

      You got a new follower

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      This is really good to know! Argh... there's *always* a catch to quick cures... what a pity!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Good info to keep in mind, and the hub is generating some helpful comments!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Yes, Nikki ~ we live and learn :)

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Hi Trish, thanks for stopping by and for adding that to the list of harmful side-effects! Personally, I think taking almost any medicine during pregnancy would scare me a bit, but aspirin is so common some people never would give it a second thought!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Something else ...

      Aspirin can affect the production of prostaglandins in females and can thus result in the need for babies to be induced!

    • Johnathan L Groom profile image

      Johnathan L Groom 6 years ago from Bristol, CT

      I think if you are gonna buy it, get the reallygood stuff!


      p.s. consult a physician...

    • nikki_m profile image

      nikki_m 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thank you :) It's always a pleasure when you stop by

      Sometimes low-dose regimens can be helpful, but the effects of long-term use don't seem to be related to dosage. It's always best to at least run it by your doctor. The benefits might outweigh the risks, but that's only for you and your doctor to decide!

    • profile image

      PWalker281 6 years ago

      Gee whiz, and here I was about to start taking baby aspirin as a preventative measure against high blood pressure. Not now! Plus I have a sensitive stomach, so I don't need to be putting anything in it that's going to cause problems, particularly when I don't even have high blood pressure to begin with.

      A well-researched and well-written hub, nikki. Thanks for sharing this important info. Rated up and useful.