What is Acetylsalicylic Acid?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is better known to most people by its common name, aspirin. A combination of sodium salicylate and acetyl chloride, this medication is the first non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to be developed, and it’s been in use for over a century. It was developed by Charles Frederic Gerhardt in the mid 19th century, but it didn’t gain popularity until the early 20th century, when its ability to reduce pain and fever were widely noted and the company Bayer® began to manufacture and distribute it in many countries.

Undoubtedly, acetylsalicylic acid has numerous benefits and uses. In addition to being an effective anti-inflammatory drug, which may help treat minor injuries or swelling, aspirin can reduce headache and calm fever. It has other uses and one of the most common is to prevent platelets from forming blood clots or to prevent damage after stroke or heart attack. A number of people use ASA daily for blood clot prevention, particularly if they have had surgery on heart valves or have stents in place. Those who think they’re having a heart attack are often told to take an aspirin right away.


Up until the 1980s, aspirin was widely used for people of all ages whenever illness with fever or minor injuries or pain conditions occurred. Companies like Bayer® made baby or child strength and adult formulas. Use in children, unless the drug is for anti-clotting purposes, is now widely discouraged. When a connection was made between acetylsalicylic acid and an increased risk for Reye’s syndrome, which can cause liver problems and brain swelling, recommendations on use was changed.

Children under the age of 12, unless they have a congenital heart defect requiring anti-clotting drugs, shouldn’t use aspirin, and it should never be used in kids with stomach flu, respiratory illnesses or chicken pox. These infections elevate the risk for Reyes. Baby aspirin is still available because its 81 mg size is the recommended daily anti-platelet dose.

Not all people tolerate acetylsalicylic acid well. Frequent use is linked to an increased risk of stomach ulcers. People who use more than the recommended dose may also develop ringing in the ears. A few people have intolerance to salicylates, which is expressed with a rash or hives upon taking the drug.

Additional recommendations exist for acetylsalicylic acid use. It shouldn’t be taken with other medications that increase blood-thinning properties like other NSAIDs or drugs likes warfarin. Using other NSAIDs concurrently also creates greater stomach irritation and risk for ulcers. Other drugs may interact with aspirin too, and people with complex medical conditions should consult their doctors prior to using ASA.

New developments of drugs in the mid 20th century somewhat dimmed the popularity of aspirin. As acetaminophen and ibuprofen came onto the scene, acetylsalicylic acid wasn’t always the first preferred drug, and combined with its possible risks to children, sale of aspirin diminished. The drug’s benefits from a cardiac perspective have recently increased sales, and new findings on problems with acetaminophen have many people returning to aspirin use.


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