Can taking painkillers to treat cold and flu increase your chance of a heart attack?

If you’ve got a cold or the flu your first point of call may be a trip to the local pharmacy, searching through shelves heaving with different brands of common painkillers. Medications like ibuprofen have become a well-oiled remedy for colds, flu, headaches and whatever else ails you. But could this form of medication actually be harmful and increase your risk of having a heart attack?

Ibuprofen and respiratory infections

The painkillers under the spotlight are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): ibuprofen falls into this category.close-up pills The researchers wanted to see whether taking NSAIDS when you have a cold or the flu, identified as acute respiratory infection (ARI), increases the chance of a having a heart attack.

Over a 7-year period, the researchers looked at data from almost 10,000 people in Taiwan who had been hospitalised because of a heart attack. The study, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, compared different groups including those who had taken NSAIDs during an episode of ARI, those who had an ARI episode without using NSAIDs, people who had used NSAIDs for other reasons and people who had no exposure to ARI or NSAIDs.

During analysis of these groups, they found that people who had taken NSAIDS during an episode of acute respiratory infection had 3.4 times increased risk for a heart attack. This rose to 7.2 times higher risk in people who had been given NSAIDS via a drip to treat the infection in hospital.

More research needs to be done to clarify this risk and understand how it might be managed, but study author Dr Cheng-Chung Fang warns “physicians should be aware that the use of NSAIDs during an acute respiratory infection might further increase the risk of a heart attack”.

Cold and flu remedies

They say prevention is better than cure. Your doctor may suggest some ways to prevent flu:  

Has a sudden onset. Full medical glossary
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a deficiency of the immune system due to infection with HIV. Full medical glossary
Any drug that suppresses inflammation Full medical glossary
A means for the continuous injection into a vein. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
The death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
Invasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Full medical glossary

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. A group of drugs that provide pain relief and reduce inflammation.

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septic arthritis Full medical glossary
Essential substances that cannot be produced by the body and so must be acquired from the diet. Full medical glossary