Daily aspirin: Risks and benefits

Image caption Daily aspirin is recommended for high risk heart patients

Taking a small daily dose of aspirin has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer. But experts say it is still too early to start recommending it to patients. So what are the risks and benefits of taking this drug?

What is aspirin?

Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) has been used for many years as a painkiller. It has an anti-inflammatory action, and is used to relieve headache, menstrual pain and muscle aches. More recently it has been given to patients with known cardiovascular disease risk factors to reduce their chance of stroke and heart attack.

How does it work?

It works by helping to prevent blood clots forming in the blood vessels, by stopping cells in the blood known as platelets from sticking together and clogging an artery.

Why low-dose aspirin?

UK experts recommend 75mg for heart disease prevention. This is a lot less than the dose for pain relief. This is because taking aspirin every day raises the risk of side effects like internal bleeds.

What are the risks?

Low-dose aspirin treatment is linked with a very small increase in the risk major bleeding in the stomach and brain.Studiessuggest that 769 people would needed to be treated with low-dose aspirin for one extra person to be harmed with major bleeding.

What do we know about taking aspirin to prevent cancer?

A number of studies have suggested aspirin may protect against cancer. Latest work in The Lancet that looks at 51 studies involving over 77,000 participants suggests aspirin not only reduces a person's risk of developing cancer but could also help stop cancers spreading around the body. Cancer death rates were also significantly lower among people taking aspirin.

Who should take it daily?

Experts say there is still not enough evidence to recommend that fit and healthy people take aspirin as a precaution against cancer. Similarly, healthy people are not advised to take it to prevent heart disease because the risks of dangerous side effects, although small, outweigh the benefits.

Low-dose daily aspirin is only recommended for those considered to be at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

But experts say it is worth exploring whether some cancer patients, such as those with bowel cancer, might benefit from daily aspirin.

Anyone considering taking aspirin is advised to talk to their doctor first.

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