Over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are killing thousands of people every year, according to British and Swiss researchers.
Their research, published in the current issue of the journal Pain, shows there was one death for every 1,200 patients taking NSAIDs for at least two months, which means, for example, NSAIDs cause three times as many deaths as cervical cancer in Britain.
The researchers analysed more than 100 trials worldwide involving more than one million people and found that gastric complications were more common than perceived.
Dr. Andrew Moore of Churchill Hospital, Oxford, joint author of the study, said: "We found that one in five has gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers.
. . . About one in 70 has symptoms (stomach pains), one in 150 has an ulcer that bleeds, and one in 1,200 dies."
He added: "We have known that these drugs carried a risk for some years. What is new is that we can now say the risk of dying is one in 1,200."
Dr. Martin Tramer of University Hospital, Geneva, who led the research team, said: "These are wonderful drugs, but they are toxic and there are alternatives that do not carry the same risk of gastric complications. These alternatives are more expensive, but this has to be weighed against the fewer number of deaths they would cause."
Dr. Tramer stressed that people taking NSAIDs sold over the counter should not panic over the warnings.
"If you just take these for a short time to relieve joint or back pain, there's little to worry about. The risks are with patients who take these drugs continuously for a couple of months or more, for conditions such as arthritis."
However, the new findings raise concern about the many thousands of people who take them for months without medical supervision.
Another member of the research team, Dr. Henry McQuay, said: "The public really needs to know the risks involved."
By Karen Birchard
April 4, 2000