Fact check: Is taking ibuprofen risky for COVID-19 patients?

TORONTO — France’s health minister set off a wave of confusion after he warned patients with COVID-19 to avoid using ibuprofen, alleging that the common painkiller could be an “aggravating factor” for the infection.

The tweet triggered a torrent of online rumours, conflicting reports and a formal response from the World Health Organization.

The short answer: no one knows how ibuprofen could affect a person with the coronavirus because there is no research on the topic. Patients who are prescribed ibuprofen to manage conditions such as arthritis or long-term pain are being urged not to go off their medication unless a doctor advises them to do so.

In the absence of research, the WHO says it is not recommending 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,” the WHO said in an update on Wednesday.

Dr. David Juurlink, a scientist with the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, agreed that there simply isn’t enough data to make a determination on the subject.

“The warning that came from France isn’t based on a whole lot of information,” Dr. Juurlink told CTV News on Wednesday.

“Until we have better data to clarify whether this is a real thing or not, I would strongly encourage people to continue taking medications for chronic inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.”

In Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada has recommended that anyone in self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic have both acetaminophen and ibuprofen with them in case of fever.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service suggests that, while there is no solid evidence that ibuprofen can make COVID-19 worse, patients can take paracetamol (another name for acetaminophen) to treat the symptoms of the coronavirus.

The tweet from French health minister Olivier Veran, who is also a neurologist, led to plenty of confusion online, with rumours running rampant about a link between ibuprofen and the coronavirus.

Among the disinformation was a memo circulating on social media that included the logos of several B.C. health authorities and suggested that the BC Centre for Disease Control advised against the use of ibuprofen.

“This is not an authentic memo and it was not issued by BCCDC or any of the health authorities,” the agency told CTV News in a statement.

“The information about ibuprofen is new and we are reviewing the evidence. In the meantime, since there are alternatives to manage fever, such as acetaminophen, it is prudent to use those.”

Allen Malek, the executive vice president and chief pharmacy officer for the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said patients who are confused should turn to medical professionals for advice.

“Pharmacists know their medications, physicians know their patients’ medical history and their prescriptions,” he said. “These are the individuals that need to be consulted before jumping to the internet … I don’t remember the last time the internet graduated from either medical school or pharmacy school.”

Malek, who personally takes ibuprofen to manage his own arthritic pain, echoed Dr. Juurlink’s message to patients who have been prescribed the painkiller.

“It’s absolutely critical that you seek professional advice before you stop taking ibuprofen or any medication for that matter,” he said.

Dr. Juurlink added that patients who have a mild fever may not need to take any drugs at all. Many studies have shown that fever can be beneficial in fighting off infections because that immune system is able to kill viruses and bacteria more efficiently when body temperature is higher.

“I think we also have to step back and say, you know, when should we be taking drugs for fever. There’s a tendency sometimes even in medical circles, but certainly from a societal perspective, that if your temperature is up at all you should take a pill to get the temperature down. That’s not, I think, sound practice,” he said.

“What we should be doing is frankly just letting the fever exist and taking something … only if the fever is really high and making you very, very uncomfortable. I think that’s, that’s probably the most important advice there.”

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