In this age of flashy new medicines and cutting-edge medical treatments, it’s comforting to find a simple cure that’s tried and true. In 400 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates described the healing powers of willow bark, which he recommended for easing pain and reducing fevers. It turns out that willow bark’s active ingredient, a chemical called salicin, is the foundation of aspirin, the closest thing modern medicine has to a miracle drug.
Healers have used willow bark to treat pain and inflammation for centuries, and since the 1700s, chemists and doctors have been isolating salicin into salicylic acid for medicinal purposes. In 1897, a German chemist was searching for a new formulation to help his father’s painful rheumatism. At the time, salicylic acid was already a dominant pain reliever, but it had terrible gastrointestinal side effects. By tinkering with the chemical structure of salicylic acid, he ended up with acetylsalicylic acid, a milder and gentler version. The pharmaceutical company he worked for, Bayer, named the compound aspirin and began marketing its new pill aggressively, and within just a few years, it was the most prescribed drug in the world. By 1915, aspirin was so ubiquitous that it became available over the counter.
These days in the United States and many other countries, aspirin is a generic drug that several companies manufacture. In countries such as Germany, Canada, Mexico, and eighty others, however, Aspirin is still a registered trademark of the Bayer Corporation. In these countries, generic forms of aspirin are called by their chemical name, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA).
A Medicinal Marvel
Aspirin has been called a miracle drug because it has so many applications. As opposed to most drugs, which have a single purpose, aspirin is a pain reliever, a fever reducer, and a blood thinner all in one. Scientists didn’t begin to truly understand how aspirin works until the 1970s, but we now know that aspirin prevents cells from manufacturing prostaglandins, chemicals that carry pain messages from damaged cells to the brain. Aspirin binds to a special enzyme called COX-2, which is necessary for the production of a particular type of prostaglandin. Without this enzyme, cells cannot create the chemicals, so pain messages never get sent to the brain, whether they’re coming from a headache, arthritis, an injury, or menstrual cramps.
Preventing prostaglandin production is also how aspirin helps keep blood flowing through the cardiovascular system. Aspirin shuts down the manufacture of many types of prostaglandins, one of which causes blood cells to stick together and coagulate. By inhibiting this particular prostaglandin’s production, aspirin thins the blood and helps prevent clots. Many people with heart disease take a low dose of aspirin every day as a preventative measure against heart attacks and strokes. While it’s not known exactly how aspirin reduces fevers, even Hippocrates noticed this medicinal property; modern physicians and researchers believe that aspirin acts on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates autonomic functions, including body temperature.
Because of its longevity and roots in traditional medicine, aspirin is often thought to be completely safe and harmless, but unfortunately, even a wonder drug can have some downsides. Doctors caution people with clotting problems against taking aspirin, since it can make coagulation disorders worse, and it shouldn’t be taken for extended periods of time after surgeries, since it can slow healing by preventing blood from clotting. If taken in large doses, it can also cause tinnitus, change the way kidneys function, and harm the gastrointestinal tract. Aspirin is particularly contraindicated for children, because kids who take aspirin (especially for things like fevers, the flu, and chicken pox) are more likely to develop a deadly nervous-system disorder called Reye’s syndrome.
Healing the Household
Even if you prefer Advil or acetaminophen, it’s still worth keeping a bottle of regular aspirin in the house. Besides coming in handy for various aches and pains, aspirin is also helpful in several household applications.
Aspirin is highly effective at reducing the inflammation caused by bug bites and stings. To ease swelling and itchiness, wet the area and rub an aspirin tablet on the spot. Cut flowers will last longer if their water includes a crushed-up aspirin tablet. Because it contains salicylic acid (the same active ingredient found in many anti-acne potions), aspirin also works to reduce the appearance of pimples and other blemishes. Rubbing an aspirin paste on a blemish will help dry it out and get rid of the redness.
If you find that your white T-shirts accumulate yellow deodorant stains in the armpits, aspirin can fix those, too. Crush a few pills, mix them with some warm water, and soak the stains in the solution before washing—the aspirin will make the shirts look as good as new. Aspirin has also been recommended for reviving dead car batteries, eliminating dandruff, killing fungus spores in the garden, and removing chlorine buildup from the hair of people who swim frequently in pools.
Nowadays, we may have specialized painkillers that target menstrual cramps, back pain, or sinus pressure, but nothing can beat a drug that’s been used safely and effectively in its present form for over a hundred years. Considering all the things aspirin can do, modern medicine would be hard pressed to come up with something better.