Every home probably has ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Available under a variety of brands (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin), we use ibuprofen often to treat our aches and pains. But what exactly is ibuprofen? If we take too much of it, could it harm us more than it helps us?
Ibuprofen is part of a drug class called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Approved in 1974 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ibuprofen has found its way into almost every home and hospital.
A treatment for pain, fever, and inflammation, ibuprofen is a common over-the-counter drug. Pain, inflammation, and fever occur partly because the body releases a chemical called prostaglandin. Ibuprofen blocks prostaglandins from being produced, which lowers the levels of prostaglandins present in the body. As a result, inflammation, pain, and fever are reduced.
Most overdoses of ibuprofen don’t end in severe adverse effects or fatalities. However, prolonged use of ibuprofen or high overdoses can result in serious complications. Let’s take a look at how ibuprofen can be bad for your body.
Ibuprofen works by blocking prostaglandins. However, prostaglandins also allow blood vessels to push more blood in and around the kidneys. By blocking prostaglandins, the kidneys receive less blood flow. If the kidneys don’t get enough blood flow, it decreases the amount of oxygen to kidney tissues—leading to kidney damage and, eventually, kidney failure.
Although kidney failure is possible in both children and adults who experience ibuprofen overdose, it’s a rare occurrence. Older people, those who have a pre-existing kidney problem, or people who are using blood pressure medications might be more prone to developing kidney issues related to ibuprofen use. According to the National Kidney Foundation, about 3% of new kidney failure cases are due to long-term use or overuse of pain medications like ibuprofen. If a person continues to use ibuprofen, even when kidney symptoms develop, it can lead to long-lasting kidney issues.
The symptoms of compromised kidney function are:
- Less frequent urination
- Swelling or fluid buildup
- An increase in blood pressure
10. Central Nervous System
At high doses, ibuprofen can affect the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS, which contains the brain and the spinal cord, controls consciousness and overall bodily functions. People who overdose on large amounts of ibuprofen can become extremely lethargic or fall into a coma.
An overdose or overuse of ibuprofen can also lead to respiratory depression, where the brain slows the breathing rate. Adults and children with respiratory depression can start by coughing or wheezing, later progressing to slow breathing rates. Children may also show signs of tiredness and experience seizures when overdosing on ibuprofen.
An overdose of ibuprofen can also result in mental status changes. Due to ibuprofen’s effects on the brain, people may become confused and disoriented. They may also show signs of paranoia, anxiety, and mood changes. Fortunately, if caught in time, health professionals can reverse the effects of high doses of ibuprofen on the CNS.
9. Stomach and Digestion Toxicity
The stomach contains strong acids that break the food we eat down. Inside the stomach is a tissue layer to protect it from these destructive acids.The continuous use or overdose of ibuprofen breaks down this protective layer, allowing stomach acids to injure the stomach walls. Ibuprofen can also cause an increase in stomach acids, adding to stomach complications like ulcers. This breakdown can result in stomach pain, abdominal bleeding, and stomach damage.
Other factors, like smoking, alcohol use, and existing health conditions, can also increase the risk of harming the stomach lining with ibuprofen.
An overdose of ibuprofen can result in liver damage. The liver is essential in filtering out toxins from the body. It’s also vital in stabilizing the body’s overall function.
Mild forms of ibuprofen toxicity may not be able to be detected without a blood test. However, more severe forms can have very definite signs of liver toxicity.
Signs of poor liver function include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Weight loss
- Dark or tea-colored urine
- Decrease in energy
- Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen
- A yellow tinge to the skin or the whites of the eyes
7. Stroke and Heart Attack
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that prolonged or excessive use of ibuprofen can increase cardiovascular events like strokes or heart attacks. Because ibuprofen can raise blood pressure, it can also lead to heart failure.
Higher doses of ibuprofen, taken consistently over time, can impact cardiovascular health. People who already have a heart condition or cardiovascular disease can be at risk for a stroke or heart attack.Related: 11 Liver Damage Signs You Can’t Ignore
6. Asthma and Breathing
Ibuprofen can make breathing problems worse for people with asthma. Because ibuprofen narrows airways, it can cause asthmatics to wheeze and cough, making it difficult for them to breathe normally.
Ibuprofen-sensitive asthmatics can also experience bronchospasms due to the change in airways. Ibuprofen may also cause nasal passages to swell and constrict, affecting breathing.
5. Hearing Loss
A study of more than 54,000 women found that ibuprofen may be linked to hearing loss. When used for a long duration, ibuprofen may affect the ability to hear. Although research still needs to be done regarding the exact link, it’s important to note that ibuprofen can affect the body in ways that are still unknown.
4. Skin Rashes
Ibuprofen may cause skin rashes, both minor and severe. For some people, ibuprofen can cause a slight itching of the skin. For a very small number of people, however, ibuprofen can result in Steven-Johnson’s Syndrome (SJS) condition. SJS results in skin cell death and can be fatal. Though extremely rare (only five in one million ibuprofen users ever come down with the condition), SJS is worth being aware of due to its severity.Related: 9 Life-Threatening Conditions That May Present with Skin Rashes
3. Risk Factors
Toxicity from overdose or overuse of ibuprofen is rare, but it can happen. A few common risk factors for ibuprofen toxicity are age, medical condition, alcohol use, and smoking. As the body ages, the liver and kidneys are exposed to more toxins and experience some wear. The organs that typically filter toxins out of the body have to work harder as people get older. Therefore, older adults tend to experience ibuprofen toxicity more often than younger people.
Alcohol and smoking also raise the risks of adverse ibuprofen effects. Tobacco and alcohol are toxins to the human body. They require the kidneys and liver to filter it from the body, wearing the body’s filter action system down.
When other toxins and chemicals, like ibuprofen, are added to the collection, they may not be filtered out efficiently. This can lead to a buildup of ibuprofen, causing a toxic amount to accumulate. Tobacco and alcohol also change the body’s cardiovascular system, making the body more at risk for the harmful effects of drugs.
2. Responsible Use of Ibuprofen
Ibuprofen is an over-the-counter-medication that can be useful in many ways. However, as with any medication, taking it responsibly is the key to its effectiveness and safety. Take ibuprofen only as directed by a physician or as recommended by the manufacturer.
Resist the temptation to take more than the required dosage. Find other alternatives or call your physician. Be aware of how often you are taking ibuprofen and for how many days. Many ibuprofen overdoses don’t occur as a one-time dose. Most happen due to the overuse of ibuprofen over days, weeks, or months.
Before using ibuprofen and other medication, individuals who already have liver or kidney complications, or cardiovascular disease, should seek approval from a healthcare professional.
1. When to See a Doctor
For a complete list of severe side effects stemming from ibuprofen, consult the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. A comprehensive list is available for reference. Aside from those listed previously in this article, some other side effects to watch for are:
- Swelling of the eyes, face, throat, or hands
- Cloudy or bloody urine or stool
- Red, painful eyes
- Stiff neck
- Fast heartbeat
MedlinePlus also directs any emergency or severe overdose events to call crisis or the poison control hotline. Call emergency or poison control for the following symptoms:
- Uncontrollable eye movements
- Blue tinge around the lips, eyes, and mouth