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Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

Definition, Purpose, Description, Recommended dosage, Precautions, Side effects, Interactions

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are medicines that relieve pain, swelling, stiffness, and inflammation.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, gout, menstrual cramps, sprains, strains, and other injuries.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs relieve pain, stiffness, swelling, and inflammation, but they do not cure the diseases or injuries responsible for these problems. Two drugs in this category, ibuprofen and naproxen, also reduce fever. Some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be bought over the counter; others are available only with a prescription from a physician or dentist.

Among the drugs in this group are diclofenac (Voltaren), etodolac (Lodine), flurbiprofen (Ansaid), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Rufen), ketorolac (Toradol), nabumetone (Relafen), naproxen (Naprosyn); naproxen sodium (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprelan); and oxaprozin (Daypro). They are sold as tablets, capsules, caplets, liquids, and rectal suppositories and some are available in chewable, extended-release, or delayed-release forms.

Recommended dosage

Recommended doses vary, depending on the patient, the type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug prescribed, the condition for which the drug is prescribed, and the form in which it is used. Always take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs exactly as directed. If using nonprescription (over-the-counter) types, follow the directions on the package label. For prescription types, check with the physician who prescribed the medicine or the pharmacist who filled the prescription. Never take larger or more frequent doses, and do not take the drug for longer than directed. Patients who take nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs for severe arthritis must take them regularly over a long time. Several weeks may be needed to feel the results, so it is important to keep taking the medicine, even if it does not seem to be working at first.

When taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in tablet, capsule, or caplet form, always take them with a full, 8-ounce glass of water or milk. Taking these drugs with food or an antacid will help prevent stomach irritation.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause a number of side effects, some of which may be very serious (See Side effects). These side effects are more likely when the drugs are taken in large doses or for a long time or when two or more nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are taken together. Health care professionals can help patients weigh the risks of benefits of taking these medicines for long periods.

Do not take acetaminophen, aspirin, or other salicylates along with other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for more than a few days unless directed to do so by a physician. Do not take ketorolac (Toradol) while taking other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs unless directed to do so by a physician.

Because older people are more sensitive than younger adults to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, they may be more likely to have side effects. Some side effects, such as stomach problems, may also be more serious in older people.

Serious side effects are especially likely with one nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, phenylbutazone. Patients age 40 and over are especially at risk of side effects from this drug, and the likelihood of serious side effects increases with age. Because of these potential problems, it is especially important to check with a physician before taking this medicine. Never take it for anything other than the condition for which it was prescribed, and never share it—or any other prescription drug—with another person.

Some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can increase the chance of bleeding after surgery (including dental surgery), so anyone who is taking the drugs should alert the physician or dentist before surgery. Avoiding the medicine or switching to another type in the days prior to surgery may be necessary.

Some people feel drowsy, dizzy, confused, light-headed, or less alert when using these drugs. Blurred vision or other vision problems also are possible side effects. For these reasons, anyone who takes these drugs should not drive, use machines or do anything else that might be dangerous until they have found out how the drugs affect them.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs make some people more sensitive to sunlight. Even brief exposure to sunlight can cause severe sunburn, rashes, redness, itching, blisters, or discoloration. Vision changes also may occur. To reduce the chance of these problems, avoid direct sunlight, especially from mid-morning to mid-afternoon; wear protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses; and use a sunscreen with a skin protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15. Do not use sunlamps, tanning booths or tanning beds while taking these drugs.

Special conditions

People with certain medical conditions and people who are taking some other medicines can have problems if they take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Before taking these drugs, be sure to let the physician know about any of these conditions:

ALLERGIES. Let the physician know about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances. Anyone who has had reactions to nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs in the past should also check with a physician before taking them again.

PREGNANCY. Women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant should check with their physicians before taking these medicines. Whether nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs cause birth defects in people is unknown, but some do cause birth defects in laboratory animals. If taken late in pregnancy, these drugs may prolong pregnancy, lengthen labor time, cause problems during delivery, or affect the heart or blood flow of the fetus.

BREASTFEEDING. Some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs pass into breast milk. Women who are breast-feeding should check with their physicians before taking these drugs.

OTHER MEDICAL CONDITIONS. A number of medical conditions may influence the effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Anyone who has any of the conditions listed below should tell his or her physician about the condition before taking nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs.

  • stomach or intestinal problems, such as colitis or Crohn's disease
  • liver disease
  • current or past kidney disease; current or past kidney stones
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • blood disorders, such as anemia, low platelet count, low white blood cell count
  • bleeding problems
  • diabetes mellitus
  • hemorrhoids, rectal bleeding, or rectal irritation
  • asthma
  • parkinson's disease
  • epilepsy
  • systemic lupus erythematosus
  • diseases of the blood vessels, such as polymyalgia rheumatica and temporal arteritis
  • fluid retention
  • alcohol abuse
  • mental illness

People who have sores or white spots in the mouth should tell the physician about them before starting to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Sores or white spots that appear while taking the drug can be a sign of serious side effects.

SPECIAL DIETS. Some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs contain sugar or sodium, so anyone on a low-sugar or low-sodium diet should be sure to tell his or her physician.

SMOKING. People who smoke cigarettes may be more likely to have unwanted side effects from this medicine.

USE OF CERTAIN MEDICINES. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs with certain other drugs may affect the way the drugs work or increase the risk of unwanted side effects. (See Interactions.)

Side effects

The most common side effects are stomach pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, heart-burn, headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, and drowsiness. As the patient's body adjusts to the medicine, these symptoms usually disappear. If they do not, check with the physician who prescribed the medicine.

Serious side effects are rare, but do sometimes occur. If any of the following side effects occur, stop taking the medicine and get emergency medical care immediately:

  • swelling or puffiness of the face
  • swelling of the hands, feet, or lower legs
  • rapid weight gain
  • fainting
  • breathing problems
  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • tightness in the chest

Other side effects do not require emergency medical care, but should have medical attention. If any of the following side effects occur, stop taking the medicine and call the physician who prescribed the medicine as soon as possible:

  • severe pain, cramps, or burning in the stomach or abdomen
  • convulsions
  • ever
  • severe nausea, heartburn, or indigestion
  • white spots or sores in the mouth or on the lips
  • rashes or red spots on the skin
  • any unusual bleeding, including nosebleeds, spitting up or vomiting blood or dark material
  • black, tarry stool
  • chest pain
  • unusual bruising
  • severe headaches

A number of less common, temporary side effects are also possible. They usually do not need medical attention and will disappear once the body adjusts to the medicine. If they continue or interfere with normal activity, check with the physician. Among these side effects are:

  • gas, bloating, or constipation
  • bitter taste or other taste changes
  • sweating
  • restlessness, irritability, anxiety
  • trembling or twitching


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may interact with a variety of other medicines. When this happens, the effects of the drugs may change, and the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who takes these drugs should let the physician know all other medicines he or she is taking. Among the drugs that may interact with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are:

  • blood thinning drugs, such as warfarin (Coumadin)
  • other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • heparin
  • tetracyclines
  • cyclosprorine
  • digitalis drugs
  • lithium
  • phenytoin (Dilantin)
  • zidovudine (AZT, Retrovir)

Nancy Ross-Flanigan


Anemia—A lack of hemoglobin — the compound in blood that carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and brings waste carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs, where it is released.

Bursitis—Inflammation of the tissue around a joint

Colitis—Inflammation of the colon (large bowel)

Inflammation—Pain, redness, swelling, and heat that usually develop in response to injury or illness.

Salicylates—A group of drugs that includes aspirin and related compounds. Salicylates are used to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and lower fever.

Tendinitis—Inflammation of a tendon—a tough band of tissue that connects muscle to bone.

Additional topics

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