Asthma is a respiratory disorder that causes inflammation in the airways of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. The symptoms of asthma, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing and wheezing, usually occur in episodes called asthma attacks. Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens, respiratory infections, stress, exercise, tobacco smoke and even certain medications. Common over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin, that may be taken to relieve mild to moderate pain caused by asthma or another condition may actually trigger asthma attacks in some asthma patients. These medications seem to provoke the autoimmune response that causes inflammation in the lungs of people with asthma. Not all asthma patients have asthma attacks that are triggered by pain medications. It is estimated that 1 in 5 asthma patients have a reaction to aspirin and other over-the-counter pain medications.
Not all over-the-counter pain medications are equally likely to trigger asthma attacks. Aspirin and certain other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are more likely to cause an adverse reaction in asthma patients than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen is a different type of drug than aspirin and other NSAIDs and it does not seem to be associated with worsened asthma symptoms. However, acetaminophen can have other adverse effects, such as gastrointestinal or liver problems, if it is used long-term or in a dose higher than what is recommended. NSAIDs that may be unsafe in people with asthma include ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil) and naproxen (Aleve).
If you have asthma and pain that is chronic or severe, talk to your doctor about pain management options. In some cases, narcotic pain medications or other types of prescription pain medications may be appropriate to keep pain levels in check. A doctor may also recommend therapies such as physical therapy, the use of ice or heat packs, relaxation techniques, diet or exercise to reduce pain levels. Asthma itself can cause chest or back pain, plus a person with asthma may have other pain-causing medical conditions that may need to be treated. The best pain management regimen for a person with asthma must be developed on a case-by-case basis.