Behind the headlines

The truth about salt and medicines

News articles about salt in medications

Soluble painkillers used by millions of people in Britain could pose a health risk because they are high in salt, UK researchers are warning.

- BBC News 27 November 2013

This story received widespread coverage, including in the Guardian, Mail, Telegraph, BBC News and others.

Effervescent or soluble medicines often contain added sodium. The researchers used a large research database to look at a group of people who had had a cardiovascular event and another group of the same age who hadn’t. Everyone in the study had been prescribed either medicines containing sodium or the equivalents without sodium at least twice in previous years (the average number of years covered was seven).

The medicines looked at were mostly painkillers – including paracetamol and aspirin – or vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, calcium and zinc.

The study found that people who had high blood pressure or a stroke were more likely to have taken the sodium-containing medicines than those who had not experienced these conditions.

This was a large study that covered more than 1.2 million patients in the UK.

However, the study did not prove cause and effect. There could be other factors, such as the amount of sodium in the diet in the form of salt, which could have affected the results. Also, the study only looked at prescribed medicines. Many sodium-containing medicines are also available over the counter and we don’t know whether these were also consumed by people taking part in the study.

The most important thing is that you don’t panic and stop taking your prescribed meds

However, we do know that consuming too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, which raises your risk of heart attack and stroke. The researchers found that taking the maximum daily dose of some medicines would on its own exceed the UK recommended daily sodium limits.

It’s recommended that we stick to 2.4g or less of sodium a day (equivalent to 6g salt) to help keep our hearts healthy.

Dr Mike Knapton, our Associate Medical Director, said: “To give us an idea of whether these risks translate for medicines bought over the counter, we would need to see further research focusing on non-prescription medication.

“Our advice is to avoid effervescent preparations, which may contain salt. If you’re in doubt about what’s in your meds, have a look at the label. All medicines that contain at least 23mg of sodium in each dose are required to declare on their labelling that the product contains sodium. Medicines that contain less than 23mg are considered to have a very low level of sodium and are not a risk to health.

“The most important thing is that you don’t panic and stop taking your prescribed meds. If you’re at all worried about what’s in your meds, have a chat to your pharmacist or book an appointment with your GP.”

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