In Depth

Fact check: should you be worried about taking ibuprofen for coronavirus?

WHO reverses earlier recommendation that Covid-19 patients should avoid anti-inflammatory drugs

The use of anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to treat Covid-19 symptoms has become a topic of hot debate amid claims that they might make the disease worse.

Euronews says the rumours have been fuelled by an apparently anonymous WhatsApp voice message in German that has “circulated widely on social media”. The clip features a woman who claims that “her friend, a doctor at the university hospital in Vienna, had warned her that most patients with severe symptoms of Covid-19 had taken the well-known drug” before being hospitalised, the news site reports.

Some experts have issued similar warnings. France’s Health Minister Olivier Veran, a neurologist, said earlier this week that taking such painkillers “could be a factor in aggravating the infection”, reports The Telegraph.

What is ibuprofen used for?

People with a temperature and flu-like symptoms are often advised to take ibuprofen, which helps to reduce fevers and eases any general aches and pains. 

Why might the drug make Covid-19 worse?

Many of the fears about using anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the new coronavirus can be traced back to a letter published earlier this month in medical journal The Lancet.

“The authors proposed that certain drugs increase the number of so-called ACE2 receptors on the surfaces of cells,” explains The New York Times.

“The coronavirus uses these receptors to infect cells, the authors noted, and so in theory patients taking the drugs might be more vulnerable to the virus. One of the drugs was ibuprofen.”

But “there was no research to back up the contention”, the newspaper adds. 

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So is it safe to take?

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that people suffering Covid-19 symptoms should avoid taking ibuprofen, following warnings from French health officials.

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva that the UN agency’s experts were “looking into this to give further guidance”.

"In the meantime, we recommend using rather paracetamol, and do not use ibuprofen as a self-medication,” he said. “That’s important.”

The NHS also changed its advice to say that while “there is currently no strong evidence that ibuprofen can make coronavirus (Covid-19) worse... until we have more information, take paracetamol to treat the symptoms of coronavirus, unless your doctor has told you paracetamol is not suitable for you”.

However, on Wednesday, WHO updated its advice. In a tweeted message, the agency said: “At present, based on currently available information, WHO does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen.

“We are also consulting with physicians treating Covid-19 patients and are not aware of reports of any negative effects of ibuprofen, beyond the usual known side effects that limit its use in certain populations.”

People who should not use ibuprofen at any time include those with asthma or some heart and circulatory problems.

Dr Rupert Beale, an expert in the cell biology of infection at the London-based Francis Crick Institute, cautions that ibuprofen may also “exacerbate acute kidney injury brought on by any severe illness, including severe Covid-19 disease”.

But he concludes: “There isn’t yet any widely accepted additional reason to avoid it for Covid-19.”

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