Normal dosage may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or gastrointestinal bleeding. Large doses cause acid-base imbalance and respiratory disturbances and can be fatal, especially in children. Aspirin also has been linked to the development of Reye's syndrome (a combination of acute encephalopathy and fatty infiltration of internal organs) in children who have taken it for viral infections. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), which does not cause gastric irritation but does lower fever and relieve pain, is often substituted for aspirin.
Aspirin, although usually made synthetically now, was originally derived from salicin, the active ingredient in willow bark. Willow bark had been used for centuries in folk medicine in certain parts of the world. Acetylsalicylic acid was first prepared by the German chemist Felix Hoffmann, an employee of Friedrich Bayer & Co., in 1897. It is now the active ingredient in more than 50 over-the-counter preparations; estimates put American consumption at 80 billion tablets annually.
Common name of acetylsalicylic acid, an organic compound introduced in 1899. The ester of salicylic acid and acetic acid, it inhibits production of prostaglandins in the body. Its analgesic, fever-reducing, and anti-inflammatory effects make it useful in treating headaches, muscle and joint aches, arthritis pain, and the symptoms of mild fevers and infections. It also has anticoagulant activity and is taken in low doses by coronary heart disease patients to prevent heart attack. Prolonged use may cause stomach bleeding and peptic ulcer, and its use in children with fever has been linked to Reye syndrome. Seealso acetaminophen; ibuprofen; NSAID.
Learn more about aspirin with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Aspirin also has an antiplatelet or "anti-clotting" effect and is used in long-term, low doses to prevent heart attacks, strokes and blood clot formation in people at high risk for developing blood clots. It has also been established that low doses of aspirin may be given immediately after a heart attack to reduce the risk of another heart attack or of the death of cardiac tissue.
The main undesirable side effects of aspirin are gastrointestinal—ulcers and stomach bleeding—and tinnitus, especially in higher doses. In children under 19 years of age, aspirin is no longer used to control flu-like symptoms or the symptoms of chickenpox, due to the risk of Reye's syndrome.
Aspirin was the first-discovered member of the class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), not all of which are salicylates, although they all have similar effects and most have some mechanism of action which involves non-selective inhibition of the enzyme cyclooxygenase. Today, aspirin is one of the most widely used medications in the world, with an estimated 40,000 metric tons of it being consumed each year.
Medicines containing derivatives of salicylic acid, structurally similar to aspirin, have been in medical use since ancient times. Salicylate-rich willow bark extract became recognized for its specific effects on fever, pain and inflammation in the mid-eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century pharmacists were experimenting with and prescribing a variety of chemicals related to salicylic acid, the active component of willow extract.
A French chemist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt, was the first to prepare acetylsalicylic acid (named aspirin in 1899) in 1853. In the course of his work on the synthesis and properties of various acid anhydrides, he mixed acetyl chloride with a sodium salt of salicylic acid (sodium salicylate). A vigorous reaction ensued, and the resulting melt soon solidified. Since no structural theory existed at that time, Gerhardt called the compound he obtained "salicylic-acetic anhydride" (wasserfreie Salicylsäure-Essigsäure). This preparation of aspirin ("salicylic-acetic anhydride") was one of the many reactions Gerhardt conducted for his paper on anhydrides, and he did not pursue it further.
Six years later, in 1859, von Gilm obtained analytically pure acetylsalicylic acid (which he called "acetylierte Salicylsäure", acetylated salicylic acid) by a reaction of salicylic acid and acetyl chloride. In 1869 Schröder, Prinzhorn and Kraut repeated both Gerhardt's (from sodium salicylate) and von Gilm's (from salicylic acid) syntheses and concluded that both reactions gave the same compound—acetylsalicylic acid. They were first to assign to it the correct structure with the acetyl group connected to the phenolic oxygen.
In 1897, scientists at the drug and dye firm Bayer began investigating acetylsalicylic acid as a less-irritating replacement for standard common salicylate medicines. By 1899, Bayer had dubbed this drug Aspirin and was selling it around the world.The name Aspirin is derived from A = Acetyl and "Spirsäure" = an old (German) name for salicylic acid. Aspirin's popularity grew over the first half of the twentieth century, spurred by its effectiveness in the wake of Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and aspirin's profitability led to fierce competition and the proliferation of aspirin brands and products, especially after the American patent held by Bayer expired in 1917.
As part of war reparations following Germany's surrender after World War I, Aspirin lost its status as a registered trademark in France, United Kingdom and the United States where it became a generic name. Aspirin remains a registered trademark of Bayer in Germany and in over 80 other countries.
Aspirin's popularity declined after the market releases of paracetamol (acetaminophen) in 1956 and ibuprofen in 1969. In the 1960s and 1970s, John Vane and others discovered the basic mechanism of aspirin's effects, while clinical trials and other studies from the 1960s to the 1980s established aspirin's efficacy as an anti-clotting agent that reduces the risk of clotting diseases. Aspirin sales revived considerably in the last decades of the twentieth century, and remain strong in the twenty-first, thanks to widespread use as a preventive treatment for heart attacks and strokes.
In high doses, aspirin and other salicylates are used in the treatment of rheumatic fever, rheumatic arthritis, and other inflammatory joint conditions. In lower doses, aspirin also has properties as an inhibitor of platelet aggregation, and has been shown to decrease the incidence of transient ischemic attacks and unstable angina in men, and can be used prophylactically. It is also used in the treatment of pericarditis, coronary artery disease, and acute myocardial infarction. Low doses of aspirin are also recommended for the prevention of stroke, and myocardial infarction in patients with either diagnosed coronary artery disease or who have an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease.
Aspirin has been theorized to reduce cataract formation in diabetic patients, but one study showed it was ineffective for this purpose. The role of aspirin in reducing the incidence of many forms of cancer has also been widely studied. In several studies, aspirin use did not reduce the incidence of prostate cancer. Its effects on the incidence of pancreatic cancer are mixed; one study published in 2004 found a statistically significant increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer among women, while a meta-analysis of several studies, published in 2006, found no evidence that aspirin or other NSAIDs are associated with an increased risk for the disease. The drug may be effective in reduction of risk of various cancers, including those of the colon, lung, and possibly the upper GI tract, though some evidence of its effectiveness in preventing cancer of the upper GI tract has been inconclusive. Its preventative effect against adenocarcinomas may be explained by its inhibition of COX-2 enzymes expressed in them. An older study claimed that aspirin may reduce the neurotoxicity of THC, the active drug in cannabis. However, this theory has been discredited, as newer studies indicate THC to be neuroprotective rather than neurotoxic.
In 1971, British pharmacologist John Robert Vane, then employed by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, showed that aspirin suppressed the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. For this discovery, he was awarded both a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 and a knighthood.
Aspirin's ability to suppress the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes is due to its irreversible inactivation of the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme. Cyclooxygenase is required for prostaglandin and thromboxane synthesis. Aspirin acts as an acetylating agent where an acetyl group is covalently attached to a serine residue in the active site of the COX enzyme. This makes aspirin different from other NSAIDs (such as diclofenac and ibuprofen), which are reversible inhibitors.
Low-dose, long-term aspirin use irreversibly blocks the formation of thromboxane A2 in platelets, producing an inhibitory effect on platelet aggregation. This anticoagulant property makes aspirin useful for reducing the incidence of heart attacks. 40 mg of aspirin a day is able to inhibit a large proportion of maximum thromboxane A2 release provoked acutely, with the prostaglandin I2 synthesis being little affected; however, higher doses of aspirin are required to attain further inhibition.
Prostaglandins are local hormones produced in the body and have diverse effects in the body, including the transmission of pain information to the brain, modulation of the hypothalamic thermostat, and inflammation. Thromboxanes are responsible for the aggregation of platelets that form blood clots. Heart attacks are primarily caused by blood clots, and low doses of aspirin are seen as an effective medical intervention for acute myocardial infarction. The major side-effect of this is that because the ability of blood to clot is reduced, excessive bleeding may result from the use of aspirin.
There are at least two different types of cyclooxygenase: COX-1 and COX-2. Aspirin irreversibly inhibits COX-1 and modifies the enzymatic activity of COX-2. Normally COX-2 produces prostanoids, most of which are pro-inflammatory. Aspirin-modified COX-2 produces lipoxins, most of which are anti-inflammatory. Newer NSAID drugs called COX-2 selective inhibitors have been developed that inhibit only COX-2, with the intent to reduce the incidence of gastrointestinal side-effects.
However, several of the new COX-2 selective inhibitors, such as Vioxx, have been recently withdrawn, after evidence emerged that COX-2 inhibitors increase the risk of heart attack. It is proposed that endothelial cells lining the microvasculature in the body express COX-2, and, by selectively inhibiting COX-2, prostaglandins (specifically PGI2; prostacyclin) are downregulated with respect to thromboxane levels, as COX-1 in platelets is unaffected. Thus, the protective anti-coagulative effect of PGI2 is decreased, increasing the risk of thrombus and associated heart attacks and other circulatory problems. Since platelets have no DNA, they are unable to synthesize new COX once aspirin has irreversibly inhibited the enzyme, an important difference with reversible inhibitors.
Furthermore, aspirin has been shown to have at least three additional modes of action. It uncouples oxidative phosphorylation in cartilaginous (and hepatic) mitochondria, by diffusing from the inner membrane space as a proton carrier back into the mitochondrial matrix, where it ionizes once again to release protons. In short, aspirin buffers and transports the protons. When high doses of aspirin are given, aspirin may actually cause fever due to the heat released from the electron transport chain, as opposed to the antipyretic action of aspirin seen with lower doses. Additionally, aspirin induces the formation of NO-radicals in the body, which have been shown in mice to have an independent mechanism of reducing inflammation. This reduced leukocyte adhesion, which is an important step in immune response to infection; however, there is currently insufficient evidence to show that aspirin helps to fight infection. More recent data also suggests that salicylic acid and its derivatives modulate signaling through NF-κB. NF-κB is a transcription factor complex that plays a central role in many biological processes, including inflammation.
The acid dissociation constant (pKa) for acetylsalicylic acid is 3.5 at 25 °C.
Polymorphism, or the ability of a substance to form more than one crystal structure, is important in the development of pharmaceutical ingredients. Many drugs are receiving regulatory approval for only a single crystal form or polymorph. For a long time, only one crystal structure for aspirin was known, although there had been indications that aspirin might have a second crystalline form since the 1960s. The elusive second polymorph was first discovered by Vishweshwar and coworkers in 2005, and fine structural details were given by Bond et al. A new crystal type was found after attempted co-crystallization of aspirin and levetiracetam from hot acetonitrile. The form II is only stable at 100 K and reverts back to form I at ambient temperature. In the (unambiguous) form I, two salicylic molecules form centrosymmetric dimers through the acetyl groups with the (acidic) methyl proton to carbonyl hydrogen bonds, and in the newly claimed form II, each salicylic molecule forms the same hydrogen bonds with two neighboring molecules instead of one. With respect to the hydrogen bonds formed by the carboxylic acid groups both polymorphs form identical dimer structures.
Salicylic acid is a weak acid, and very little of it is ionized in the stomach after oral administration. Acetylsalicylic acid is poorly soluble in the acidic conditions of the stomach, which can delay absorption of high doses for 8 to 24 hours. In addition to the increased pH of the small intestine, aspirin is rapidly absorbed there due to the increased surface area, which in turn allows more of the salicylate to dissolve. Due to the issue of solubility, however, aspirin is absorbed much more slowly during overdose, and plasma concentrations can continue to rise for up to 24 hours after ingestion.
About 50–80% of salicylate in the blood is bound by protein while the rest remains in the active, ionized state; protein binding is concentration-dependent. Saturation of binding sites leads to more free salicylate and increased toxicity. The volume of distribution is 0.1–0.2 l/kg. Acidosis increases the volume of distribution because of enhancement of tissue penetration of salicylates.
As much as 80% of therapeutic doses of salicylic acid is metabolized in the liver. Conjugation with glycine forms salicyluric acid and with glucuronic acid forms salicyl acyl and phenolic glucuronide. These metabolic pathways have only a limited capacity. Small amounts of salicylic acid are also hydroxylated to gentisic acid. With large salicylate doses, the kinetics switch from first order to zero order, as metabolic pathways become saturated and renal excretion becomes increasingly important.
Salicylates are excreted mainly by the kidneys as salicyluric acid (75%), free salicylic acid (10%), salicylic phenol (10%) and acyl (5%) glucuronides, and gentisic acid (< 1%). When small doses (less than 250 mg in an adult) are ingested, all pathways proceed by first order kinetics, with an elimination half-life of about 2 to 4.5 hours. When higher doses of salicylate are ingested (more than 4 g), the half-life becomes much longer (15-30 hours) because the biotransformation pathways concerned with the formation of salicyluric acid and salicyl phenolic glucuronide become saturated. Renal excretion of salicylic acid becomes increasingly important as the metabolic pathways become saturated, because it is extremely sensitive to changes in urinary pH. There is a 10 to 20 fold increase in renal clearance when urine pH is increased from 5 to 8. The use of urinary alkalinization exploits this particular aspect of salicylate elimination.
For some people, aspirin does not have as strong an effect on platelets as for others, an effect known as aspirin resistance or insensitivity. One study has suggested that women are more likely to be resistant than men and a different, aggregate study of 2,930 patients found 28% to be resistant.
Reye's syndrome is due to fatty deterioration of liver cells. In another study, 12 livers were obtained from children who had died from Reye's syndrome, and another liver from a child who died of accidental causes was used as a control. The autopsy stated in seven of the 12 livers, micro vesicular fatty change was present.
Aspirin can induce angioedema in some people. In one study, angioedema appeared 1-6 hours after ingesting aspirin in some of the patients participating in the study. However, when the aspirin was taken alone it did not cause angioedema in these patients; the aspirin was either taken in combination with another NSAID-induced drug when angioedema appeared.
For adults doses are generally taken four times a day for fever or arthritis, with doses near the maximal daily dose used historically for the treatment of rheumatic fever. For the prevention of myocardial infarction in someone with documented or suspected coronary artery disease, much lower doses are taken once daily.
For those under 12 years of age, the dose previously varied with the age, but aspirin is no longer routinely used in children due to the association with Reye's syndrome; paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in North America) or other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, are now used instead. Kawasaki disease remains one of the few indications for aspirin use in children, with aspirin taken at dosages based on body weight, initially four times a day for up to two weeks and then at a lower dose once daily for a further six to eight weeks.
Patients are monitored until their peak salicylate blood level has been determined. Blood levels are usually assessed four hours after ingestion and then every two hours after that to determine the maximum level. Maximum levels can be used as a guide to toxic effects expected.
There is no antidote to salicylate poisoning. Monitoring of biochemical parameters such as electrolytes, liver and kidney function, urinalysis, and complete blood count is undertaken along with frequent checking of salicylate and blood sugar levels. Arterial blood gas assessments are performed to test for respiratory alkalosis and metabolic acidosis. Patients are monitored and often treated according to their individual symptoms, patients may be given intravenous potassium chloride to counteract hypokalemia, glucose to restore blood sugar levels, benzodiazepines for any seizure activity, fluids for dehydration, and importantly sodium bicarbonate to restore the blood's sensitive pH balance. Sodium bicarbonate also has the effect of increasing the pH of urine, which in turn increases the elimination of salicylate. Additionally, hemodialysis can be implemented to enhance the removal of salicylate from the blood. Hemodialysis is usually used in severely poisoned patients; for example, patients with significantly high salicylate blood levels, significant neurotoxicity (agitation, coma, convulsions), renal failure, pulmonary edema, or cardiovascular instability are hemodialyzed. Hemodialysis also has the advantage of restoring electrolyte and acid-base abnormalities while removing salicylate; hemodialysis is often life-saving in severely ill patients.