A Medicinal Marvel
Aspirin has been called a miracle drug because it has so many applications. As opposed to most drugs, which have a single purpose, aspirin is a pain reliever, a fever reducer, and a blood thinner all in one. Scientists didn’t begin to truly understand how aspirin works until the 1970s, but we now know that aspirin prevents cells from manufacturing prostaglandins, chemicals that carry pain messages from damaged cells to the brain. Aspirin binds to a special enzyme called COX-2, which is necessary for the production of a particular type of prostaglandin. Without this enzyme, cells cannot create the chemicals, so pain messages never get sent to the brain, whether they’re coming from a headache, arthritis, an injury, or menstrual cramps.
Preventing prostaglandin production is also how aspirin helps keep blood flowing through the cardiovascular system. Aspirin shuts down the manufacture of many types of prostaglandins, one of which causes blood cells to stick together and coagulate. By inhibiting this particular prostaglandin’s production, aspirin thins the blood and helps prevent clots. Many people with heart disease take a low dose of aspirin every day as a preventative measure against heart attacks and strokes. While it’s not known exactly how aspirin reduces fevers, even Hippocrates noticed this medicinal property; modern physicians and researchers believe that aspirin acts on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates autonomic functions, including body temperature.
Because of its longevity and roots in traditional medicine, aspirin is often thought to be completely safe and harmless, but unfortunately, even a wonder drug can have some downsides. Doctors caution people with clotting problems against taking aspirin, since it can make coagulation disorders worse, and it shouldn’t be taken for extended periods of time after surgeries, since it can slow healing by preventing blood from clotting. If taken in large doses, it can also cause tinnitus, change the way kidneys function, and harm the gastrointestinal tract. Aspirin is particularly contraindicated for children, because kids who take aspirin (especially for things like fevers, the flu, and chicken pox) are more likely to develop a deadly nervous-system disorder called Reye’s syndrome.
Next: Household applications for aspirin