Advil abuse: A hidden epidemic

Lili Hakimi

While in your sixth period class, you feel a headache beginning to develop in the middle of your forehead. You push your fingers into your temples, and without hesitation, you reach for the bottle of Advil next to your pencil pouch. Your hands scrounge for the bottle of pills, only to find that it is empty. You tap the back of your friend’s shoulder and ask if they have Advil. Your friend nods, unzipping their backpack and pulling out a full bottle. How did we get to a point where it is normal for everyone to carry around Advil and use it for any minor discomfort they experience throughout the day? 

According to a study published by the Boston University School of Health, nearly one in five users of popular headache remedies, including Advil or Aleve, said they exceeded the recommended daily maximum dose over the course of a week. Although ibuprofen, the generic drug name for Advil, is not physically or psychologically addictive, a person may become physically dependent on it in an attempt to control pain throughout their day, as reported by Addiction Hope, an online site supporting recovery. Additionally, tolerance can be built to ibuprofen when it is taken repeatedly for a long period of time.

Infographic by Sarah Goody

In fact, the Florida House Experience , a center for treating behavioral health disorders, says that overusing any over-the-counter medication, like Advil, can lead to similar behavioral signs and symptoms to an addiction to a stimulant or antidepressant drug. These behavioral signs and symptoms can include feeling like it is impossible to go a whole day without taking Advil and always feeling the need to have a container of it nearby. Symptoms can also include feeling anxious when an individual doesn’td have access to Advil or taking increasing doses in an attempt to relieve pain.

District Health Specialist Mayalani Callaghan elaborated on how behavioral addictiveness can manifest.

“At a certain point, it will just start becoming psychosomatic — you get pain, and you take an Advil to help relieve it. [You are] just prolonging something that you actually need to go to the doctor for,” Callaghan said. “If you think you have pain, even if you don’t really have a headache [or another injury], you will make it up to be a bigger issue than it really is. And you will take an Advil and all of a sudden [your pain] is gone. It is in your head rather than [the Advil] actually helping with the pain relief.”

However, what most people don’t know is that high amounts of ibuprofen can be dangerous. Senior Iya Alzerjawi, who is in training to become a pharmacy technician and works at CVS Pharmacy, identified some of the risks associated with the overuse of Advil. 

“There definitely can be a long term effect [in taking too much Advil] — it can affect your gastrointestinal tract, the lining of your stomach, your hormones for your period [and] you can have a heavier flow if you take too much,” Alzerjawi said. “It can also affect your heart in the long run and could cause a heart attack or a stroke if you take too much for a long period of time.”

A few additional effects of Advil abuse include high blood pressure, kidney damage, stomach ulcers and liver toxicity.

Infographic by Sarah Goody

Among teenagers, overuse of Advil is often common in athletes who frequently feel pain on a day-to-day basis from sports related discomfort and injuries. Mari Rode, a sophomore at Archie Williams High School and a soccer player for Marin Football Club, recognizes the prevalence of Advil and how often it is taken on her team.

“At least one of us always has a big bottle of Advil … around half my teammates take Advil before practice and the majority of them take it before games,” Rode said.

Rode also added that for her and her teammates, Advil is taken not only to deal with pain, but as a preventative measure as well.

Recent research has indicated that while anti-inflammatory medications may relieve pain in the short term, for some people, they can lead to long term pain. Jeffery Mogil, PhD, the author of a study about the effects of inflammatory medication on chronic pain and the Canada Research Chair in Genetics of Pain at McGill University said that inflammation is a natural response to injuries in an interview with Healthline magazine. 

“There is already evidence that if you block the body’s inflammation that it disrupts wound healing, so it’s possible that you shouldn’t be blocking something the body is trying to do for a reason,” Mogil said. While ibuprofen is safe to take when following the recommended dosage for the appropriate period of time, ultimately it is important to listen to your body, says Alzerjawi. “If you are experiencing a lot of pain, see your doctor, you shouldn’t take Advil whenever you want, everyday, multiple times a day. It’s definitely something you should see a specialist for.”