NSAIDs don’t boost the risk of more severe disease or death in hospitalized patients with COVID-19, a new study finds.
“To our knowledge, our prospective study includes the largest number of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 to date, and adds to the literature on the safety of NSAIDs and in-hospital outcomes. NSAIDs do not appear to increase the risk of worse in-hospital outcomes ...” the study authors wrote. “NSAIDs are an important analgesic modality and have a vital opioid-sparing role in pain management. Patients and clinicians should be reassured by these findings that NSAIDs are safe in the context of the pandemic.”
The report was published online May 7 in The Lancet Rheumatology and led by clinical research fellow Thomas M. Drake, MBChB, of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute.
For more than a year, researchers worldwide have debated about whether NSAIDs spell trouble for people at risk of COVID-19. In March 2020, French health officials announced that use of the painkillers such as NSAIDs may increase the severity of the disease, and they recommended that patients take acetaminophen instead. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom made a similar recommendation. But other agencies didn’t believe there was enough evidence to support ditching NSAIDs, and recent research studies published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases and PLoS Medicine suggested they may be right.
For the new study, researchers identified 72,179 patients who were treated for COVID-19 in British hospitals during January-August 2020. About 56% were men, 74% were White, and 6% took NSAIDs on a regular basis before they entered the hospital. The average age was 70.
The researchers examined whether the patients in either group were more or less likely to die in the hospital, be admitted into a critical care unit, need oxygen treatment, need a ventilator, or suffer kidney injury.
In terms of outcomes, there weren’t any major gaps between the groups overall. The differences in most comparisons were statistically insignificant. For example, 31% of those who didn’t take NSAIDs died vs. 30% of those who did (P = .227). In both groups, 14% required critical care admission (P = .476).
The researchers then focused on two matched groups of 4,205 patients: One group used NSAIDs regularly, and the other group didn’t. The difference in risk of death in those who took NSAIDs vs. those who didn’t was statistically insignificant (odds ratio, 0.95; 95% confidence interval, 0.84-1.07; P = .35). Other comparisons were also statistically insignificant.
The findings offer insight into whether the use of NSAIDs might actually be helpful for patients who develop COVID-19. Scientists believe that COVID-19 is linked to inflammation in the body, and NSAIDs, of course, reduce inflammation. But the researchers didn’t turn up any sign of a benefit.
The new study has some weaknesses: It doesn’t say anything about whether NSAIDs have an impact on whether people get COVID-19 in the first place. Researchers don’t know if high use of NSAIDs may affect the severity of the disease. And it doesn’t examine the potential effect of acetaminophen, although other research suggests the drug also may not cause harm in patients with COVID-19.
Still, the researchers say the study is the largest of its kind to look at the use of NSAIDs by patients who are admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. “Considering all the evidence, if there was an extreme effect of NSAIDs on COVID-19 outcomes or severity, this would have been observed in one or more of the studies that have been done, including the present study,” they wrote.
In a commentary that accompanied the study, three physicians from hospitals in Denmark, led by Kristian Kragholm, MD, of Aalborg University Hospital, praised the research and wrote that it adds to “a growing body of evidence” that NSAIDs don’t make things worse for patients with COVID-19.
The study was funded by the U.K. National Institute for Health Research and the U.K. Medical Research Council. The study and commentary authors reported no relevant disclosures.