In the past, serious kidney damage resulted from taking certain over-the-counter painkillers every day for some years. Powders or tablets containing mixtures of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine were the most dangerous.

We didn’t know how dangerous these mixtures could be until about 40 years ago when it was noticed that many people with severe kidney damage had been using painkillers in excess. The majority were women. Many of the mixtures on sale at that time contained phenacetin (the old APCs, Bex and Vincent’s powders), the most dangerous culprit in analgesic kidney damage. Painkillers containing phenacetin are no longer sold, and other over-the-counter painkillers are now formulated to minimize the risk of kidney damage.

How did women become ‘hooked’ on painkillers? Maybe they started taking them for a headache or other pain and were vaguely aware that they felt brighter for a few hours afterwards (that was a ‘lift’ from the caffeine the treatments contained). As the effect wore off they noticed a ‘let down’ and ‘thick head’ feeling, so they took another one, and so on – a habit easily develops.

Prolonged use of the old painkiller mixtures caused destruction – a sort of gangrene – of tiny areas of kidney tissue.

As more and more tissue was destroyed, the kidneys became less able to function and could finally fail. Analgesic abuse could also lead to kidney stones, increased risk of kidney tumours, stomach ulcers, anaemia and high blood pressure.

If you’ve ever used analgesic mixtures regularly, ask your doctor for a checkup. If you need painkillers every day, you’re unlikely to have any problems if they’re prescribed by your doctor and your health is checked regularly. An occasional nonprescription painkiller for headache or other pain is safe, but a regular tablet or powder with your cup of tea and lie-down is not a good idea!


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