You’ve got a headache, so you take ibuprofen. Your muscles are sore from a workout, so you take ibuprofen. Your menstrual cramps are bad this week, so you take ibuprofen.
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But is it really safe to be taking so much ibuprofen?
In short, no. “People don’t think of over-the-counter medicine as being medicine at all,” says internist Janet Morgan, MD, “but it absolutely is medicine, and like anything else, it’s potentially very dangerous.”
Dr. Morgan talks about the risks and how to take ibuprofen correctly, sparingly and responsibly.
The risks of improper ibuprofen use and overuse
One study estimates that NSAIDs — non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat pain and inflammation — are responsible for 107,000 hospitalizations and 15,600 deaths a year in the U.S.
Possible side effects of ibuprofen use
When used incorrectly, especially chronically, negative effects can include:
- Gastrointestinal problems, including bleeding.
- Heart attack.
- Heart failure.
- High blood pressure.
- Kidney damage.
- Liver toxicity.
- Low sodium levels.
- Upset stomach.
Ibuprofen can interact with medications
You’re more prone to negative effects if you’re taking other medications that ibuprofen doesn’t mix well with.
“Ibuprofen can interact with the meds you’re on, especially high blood pressure medications, which can lead to some serious adverse effects,” Dr. Morgan says. “That could be deadly.”
Ibuprofen can interact negatively with:
- Blood thinners.
- Heart medication, such as clopidogrel.
- Immunosuppressive medication, such as cyclosporine.
- Seizure medication, such as phenytoin.
- Other NSAIDs.
Ibuprofen can impact certain conditions
You should also check with your doctor before taking ibuprofen if you have any of the following conditions:
- Gastrointestinal problems, including heartburn.
- Heart problems.
- Kidney problems.
How much ibuprofen is safe?
How much ibuprofen you can take depends on, well, you. “There’s not really a one-size-fits-all answer,” Dr. Morgan says. “It depends on your general state of health.”
As a general rule, though, Dr. Morgan says most healthy people — those who don’t have high blood pressure or gastrointestinal issues — can typically take ibuprofen on a limited basis to address minor aches and pains.
“It’s not without risk, but you can feel pretty safe taking it for about three days,” she says. “Take no more than 400 to 600 milligrams, three times a day, with food. Otherwise, it can ruin your stomach.”
And just because you can get ibuprofen over the counter doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be treated like medication. As with any drug, you should ask your doctor how much ibuprofen, if any, is safe for you, based on your specific health issues and concerns.
How to take ibuprofen responsibly
Dr. Morgan lays out a few important, commonsense guidelines to keep in mind before heading to the medicine cabinet and diving into that bottle of ibuprofen.
- Talk to a doctor. “Sometimes, taking ibuprofen when you have another health condition can actually create the perfect storm,” Dr. Morgan warns. Your doctor can advise you whether ibuprofen is safe for you and your unique medical concerns.
- Use only what you need. Always follow dosage instructions or specific guidelines from your doctor — and don’t pop an extra pill thinking it will give you a little bit of extra benefit.
- Only use it when you need it. Just say no to ibuprofen as a cure-all. “Some people use it thinking it can ward off problems, but it shouldn’t be used for prophylaxis,” Dr. Morgan says.
- Seek alternatives to ibuprofen. If ibuprofen has been your go-to way to tackle pain, Dr. Morgan encourages you to find alternatives, when possible. Topical NSAID creams and gels can soothe sore muscles, warm and cold packs can bring down minor swelling and holistic measures like exercise, massage and yoga can promote overall wellness.
- Get to the root of your pain: If you find yourself turning to ibuprofen on a regular basis to deal with chronic pain and soreness, talk to your doctor to try to identify the underlying cause. “It should never get to the point of everyday ibuprofen use,” Dr. Morgan says, “Issues like ongoing abdominal pain, chronic headaches and really serious aching of your muscles don’t just go away on their own,” Dr. Morgan says.