Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are medications that relieve or reduce pain. The most popular examples of drugs in this group are aspirin and ibuprofen. NSAIDs may cause some side effects.

NSAIDs come under the wider definition of non-opioid analgesics. Doctors typically use NSAIDs rather than opioid pain relievers, such as morphine, to treat less severe pain.

This class of drugs includes some of the most common pain relief drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

This article discusses NSAIDs in more detail, including how they work, their uses, and the precautions that people should take when using them.

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The immune system responds to infection and injury with inflammation. Noticeable signs include heat, skin discoloration, swelling, and pain.

The body receives pain signals from nerve receptors when inflammation occurs. These signals result from complex responses and interactions between cells and chemicals in the body.

Anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation, minimizing its direct effect on pain-nerve stimulation and sensitivity, as well as decreasing the resulting inflammatory heat and swelling. In this way, NSAIDs help relieve pain.

Examples of NSAIDs

Over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs include:

Some stronger forms of ibuprofen are also available by prescription. Other prescription NSAIDs include:

  • oxaprozin (Daypro)
  • etodolac (Lodine)
  • indomethacin (Indocin)
  • naproxen (Naprosyn)
  • nabumetone (Relafen)
  • diclofenac (Cataflam)
  • naproxen/esomeprazole (Vimovo)

Discover more about the types of NSAIDs here.

NSAIDs are a broad group of non-opioid analgesic drugs. Although their chemical structures are different, they have several effects in common:

NSAIDs work by slowing the formation of prostaglandins, which play an important role in the body’s inflammatory response. The body, therefore, produces more of these substances when an injury occurs. Reducing the number of prostaglandins at the site of damaged tissue lowers inflammation.

NSAIDs also block an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), which supports the reactions that produce prostaglandins.

By blocking COX, NSAIDs interfere with the function of platelets — cells in the blood that play a crucial role in blood clotting. As a result, these medications have anti-clotting properties.

In the case of aspirin, this property may help prevent the blocked arteries that can cause heart attack or stroke.

People typically use NSAIDs to relieve three symptoms that occur in a range of conditions:

  • high temperature or fever
  • inflammation
  • pain

It is common to use NSAIDs to ease minor and short-term inflammation and pain. Some conditions that may cause temporary pain include:

If any of these problems become chronic, a person should consider the safety of using NSAIDs.

Using NSAIDs for cold and flu

Many people take NSAIDs to treat the symptoms of the common cold. However, although these drugs relieve some symptoms, such as fever and pain, they neither kill the virus nor improve the course of the illness.

People thinking about taking NSAIDs may wish to consider a few precautions.

For instance, it is best to limit or avoid alcohol while using NSAIDs, as this combination of drugs can irritate the gut and increase the risk of internal stomach bleeding.

It is also important not to mix more than one kind of NSAID and to tell a doctor before combining an NSAID with any other medicine, as this can sometimes cause some adverse effects.

Other people who may need to avoid these drugs or take them with medical guidance include those who:

Anyone who takes NSAIDs may experience some side effects.

Serious side effects are less common than mild ones, and the likelihood of any side effect varies among individuals. People taking drugs in high dosages or over a more extended term are more likely to have side effects.

Prescription NSAIDs are generally more effective in relieving pain, particularly intense pain, than OTC NSAIDs. However, they are more likely to cause side effects.

Less severe side effects that some people experience include:

Rare adverse events associated with NSAIDs include problems with:

NSAIDs can also increase blood pressure. The risk of heart attack and stroke may be higher for a person who takes NSAIDs, unless they take aspirin. However, this is usually more of a concern for people with other risk factors for heart problems.

Peptic ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding

Long-term or high dose use of NSAIDs can lead to ulcers developing in the gut, known as peptic ulcers. This occurs because prostaglandins protect the stomach lining by helping it produce mucus. By reducing the number of prostaglandins in the body, NSAIDs leave the stomach open to the effects of stomach acid.

People who take NSAIDs for a long time or at high dosages should consult their doctor about ulcer prevention. One option is to take separate drugs that reduce acid production in the stomach. Using a different type of pain reliever is another option.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are non-opioid analgesic medications that people primarily use to treat mild symptoms of pain throughout the body.

People can get OTC versions or get a prescription from a doctor for stronger pain relievers. Many people take NSAIDs on an as-needed basis to treat mild conditions, such as headaches, fever from cold or flu, or period cramps.

However, people may wish to take certain precautions to reduce the risk of side effects. For instance, it is advisable to avoid alcohol and other medications when taking NSAIDs. People with risk factors for some health conditions and those who need to take other medications should speak with a doctor before taking NSAIDs.