Read the headlines about aspirin? A new study has linked over-75s who take a daily aspirin tablet after a stroke or heart attack, with an increased risk of stomach bleeds than previously thought.
Scientists suggest that to reduce these risks, older people should also take stomach-protecting PPI pills.
This isn’t the first study that’s highlighted the increase risk of stomach bleeds from taking aspirin, but until now, most research involved people under 75, where the chance of serious bleeds was low.
But with so many over 75s on lifelong aspirin, researchers at Oxford University decided to weigh up the pros and cons.
Professor Peter Rothwell who led the study, which was published in the Lancet, said: “Our new study gives us a much clearer understanding of the size of the increased risk and the severity and consequences of bleeds in over 75s.”
What is aspirin?
A common pain killer that has a number of uses, the NHS advises that some types of aspirin can be bought over the counter from pharmacies while others are only available on prescription and can take the form of pills and tablets that are dissolved in water, and powders and oral gels.
What are the benefits?
"Aspirin is an amazing little medicine that has been shown to have many potential health benefits. These include: reducing heart attacks, strokes and even some cancers. A ‘baby’ aspirin is a small dose taken daily as a preventer, says Dr Helen Webberley, head of online healthcare service www.mywebdoctor.co.uk.
What are the drawbacks?
“Like everything, it also carries some risks. The biggest is the fact that in some people it can cause bleeding in the stomach. If this bleeding is profuse it can lead to death. As with so many things in life, it is a balance of risks versus benefits,” says Webberley.
Can anything else trigger the risk of stomach bleeds?
The NHS warn that the risk of bleeding in the stomach may be higher if you drink alcohol while taking aspirin, so you may want to consider reducing how much you drink, or avoiding alcohol completely.
What if you’ve had a heart attack?
"If you are at high risk of heart attacks and strokes from atrial fibrillation (irregular heart beat) for example – perhaps you have had a heart attack in the past, or are known to have fatty deposits in your blood vessels – even if you have diabetes, your doctor may recommend that the benefits of taking an aspirin a day outweigh the risks. If on the other hand, you are fit and healthy and have no risk factors, the risk that aspirin might lead to a life-threatening bleed may not be worth taking," suggests Webberley.
Should I be cautious about taking a PPI drug if it’s co-prescribed?
"Many people are prescribed the stomach protecting proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) to help cut down on stomach acid and reduce irritation that can be caused by taking aspirin,” says Webberley. “These do offer some degree of protection. However, there is a concern that, if they are taken long-term, they can contribute to salt and mineral imbalances, which in turn can lead to gut infections and even pneumonia."
What other side effects are there?
The most common side effects are indigestion and stomach aches, so it’s worth getting into the habit of taking your medicine with food to help reduce the risk.
Do you take a daily aspirin and have you been prescribed a PPI drug as well? Tell us in the Comments box below.