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Aspirin spilling from bottle

How Aspirin Works

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Doctors had no idea the effects aspirin would have on the future when German research chemist Felix Hoffman created it on October 10, 1897. The medication, which is made of acetyl salicylic acid, not only relieves minor aches and pains, but it can be life-saving in some medical conditions. The synthetic version of salicin, acetyl salicylic acid was created to mimic the natural pain-relieving extract in the willow tree. It was as early as 400 BC that Greek physician Hippocrates used a brew made of willow tree leaves to treat a woman experiencing pain during childbirth. However, it wasn’t until 1793 that someone used it scientifically, when the Reverend Edward Stone of England gave ground-up willow bark to 50 members of his church who were suffering from rheumatic fever.

The taste of the willow bark was so unappealing, though, that it was harsh on the stomach and when being swallowed. It was due to this fact that a synthetic version of aspirin was developed in 1897. Under the name Bayer, founder Felix Hoffman created acetyl salicylic acid, what we know today as aspirin.

No one knew the specifics of how aspirin worked until the 1970s, when a British scientist and professor named John Vane solved the mystery. All along, the medication, when taken, blocked an enzyme that produced prostaglandins, a natural hormone in the body that processes pain. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work with aspirin and was ordained a ‘sir’ in 1982.

That was only the beginning of the research on how aspirin works, as biomedical chemists are still discovering new things about it even today. One interesting fact is that aspirin actually blocks the enzyme cyclooxygenase, also called COX. It also stops a prostaglandin called thromboxane, which is made in the body’s platelets and causes the body’s blood to clot at the site of any bleeding. A person taking 10 baby aspirin in as many days will completely deplete the thromboxane in their platelets, so they will likely bleed more than normal if injured during the time period the aspirin is in their system. The medicine remains in the body for 10 days after ceasing use.

In early days, aspirin was found to be especially useful when treating fever, pain, and inflammation. Today, the medicine is widely used around the world, as an average of 100 billion pills are taken every year. Even astronauts carry it on trips in the space shuttle.

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