It is a common misconception that aspirin is a naturally occurring substance that was discovered in the bark of the willow tree. A related compound called salicin does indeed occur in white willow bark (not the “weeping willow,” thereby explaining the use of the bark as a medication since the time of Hippocrates. But salicin is very irritating to the stomach, a problem that prompted the Bayer company to look for an alternative. One of its chemists, Felix Hoffmann, synthesized acetylsalicylic acid in 1898 and found it to be a great improvement over salicin. A triumph of chemistry over nature!
Aspirin has since been found to do much more than alleviate pain. It is an excellent anti-inflammatory substance, as many arthritis patients will vouch. ASA, (the compound’s generic name), also has an anticoagulant or “blood thinning” effect that can reduce the risk of a subsequent heart attack or stroke in patients who have already suffered such an event. Today, more aspirin is consumed as a heart-attack or stroke preventative (generally in doses of about 80 mg a day) than as a painkiller!
When it comes to preventing a first cardiovascular event, current consensus is that the risk of ASA causing bleeding outweighs any benefit it may provide. However, when someone suspects they may be having a heart attack, chewing a 325 mg tablet is appropriate. The most important action, though, is to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
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