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What are NSAIDs and how do they work?

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are medicines that are widely used to relieve symptoms of pain. However, NSAIDs are more than just pain relievers - they can also be used to help reduce inflammation and tackle fevers, colds and flu and even affect the way that blood clots. This, along with other effects may be good in some cases but not so beneficial in others, so NSAIDs are not suitable for everyone and can sometimes cause troublesome side effects. 

Types of NSAIDs

NSAIDs come in many forms and are available as anti-inflammatory tablets, capsules, creams, gels and injections. Some can be bought from pharmacies, either online or over the counter, while others need a prescription. Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Naproxen are all types of NSAIDs you might have heard of.

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They're all similarly effective, with small differences in anti-inflammatory activity, although you may find a particular one works best for you based on your condition and tolerance.

NSAIDs are used to treat a variety of ailments such as pain, inflammation, and stiffness caused by multiple conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and tendonitis. NSAIDs are also used to treat several other conditions like muscle aches, dental pain and menstrual cramps, as well as many more

How they work

NSAIDs work by blocking the production of certain chemicals in the body that cause inflammation. These drugs work by preventing specific enzymes from doing their job. These enzymes produce hormones called prostaglandins which are responsible for inflammation, pain and fever in the body. However, the enzymes also activate platelets that help protect the stomach lining from being damaged.

NSAIDs act to block these enzymes and reduce production of prostaglandins. Therefore, inflammation, pain, and fever are reduced, but this can leave the stomach lining more vulnerable if they are no longer active. NSAIDs can therefore cause ulcers in the stomach and intestines, and increase the risk of bleeding if they are used for extended periods of time.

Side effects

Like all medicines, there is of course a small risk of side effects from NSAIDs. These tend to be more common if you're taking high doses for a long time, or you're elderly or in poor general health. When taking NSAIDs for long periods of time, you should be carefully monitored by your healthcare provider so they can watch for harmful side effects and change your treatment if necessary.

Possible side effects of NSAIDs you may experience include:

  • Indigestion – including stomach aches, feeling sick and diarrhoea
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

NSAIDs can raise blood pressure in some people. Some people with high blood pressure may have to stop taking NSAIDs if they notice that their blood pressure increases. If you are taking blood pressure medication, talk to your healthcare provider before taking NSAIDs.

Who can take NSAIDs?

NSAIDs are generally safe to use and most people can take them, but some people need to be more careful about taking them than others, especially if you are over 65, pregnant or breastfeeding or if you’ve had an allergic reaction to NSAIDs in the past.

NSAIDs are not necessarily unsafe in these situations, but should only be used on advice from a healthcare professional.

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NSAID alternatives are available. The main alternative for pain relief you will have probably heard of is paracetamol, which is available over the counter and online and is safe for most people to take.

Find out more and buy NSAIDs here.