Precisely speaking, a salicylate is actually an ester or salt of salicylic acid. In fact, salicylates occur naturally in a number of plants - for example the wintergreen leaves and white willow bark. It is believed that salicylates defend the plants against various harmful elements, including damages caused by insects and also diseases. Aspirin is derived from salicylic acid (which is also referred to as acetylsalicylic acid).

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Salicylates form an active ingredient of several medications, especially aspirin, and you can use them for treating several health issues. Generally, people intake trace amounts of salicylates which are present in the foods they consume. In a number of instances, people may also develop salicylate allergies or salicylate intolerance and they may develop reactions on taking salicylates when they are exposed to these compounds.

Salicylates derive their name from Salix or trees belonging to the willow genes - which is a primary source of salicylates. In ancient times, people used the bark of willow trees in teas as well as tinctures and gave them to people with headaches, muscle aches and joint pain. These compounds also occur naturally in several fruits, particularly dried fruits together with nuts, vegetables, beer and wine. Salicylates naturally possess anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties, and this explains why plants produce them to protect themselves from various harmful elements, including diseases and damages due to insects. Plants that produce these compounds are, therefore, naturally protected from such harms. In addition to these, salicylates also possess anti-inflammatory properties.

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Aside from their use in medicines, salicylates are also used as food preservatives. This is mainly because these compounds possess antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and keratolytic or skin peeling properties. In addition, salicylic acid and acetylsalicylic acid both possess analgesic or pain relieving, antipyretic (ability to lower temperature) and anti-inflammatory properties. However when taken in therapeutic doses, the main risk associated with acetylsalicylic acid is irritation in the gastro-intestinal system. Moreover, this acid can also prove to be toxic when consumed in large amounts.

Usually, most people do not experience any problem when they consume foods or medicines containing salicylate. On the other hand, some people are very sensitive to these compounds. Apart from aspirin, some other general use medicines containing salicylates include choline salicylate, salsalate, and magnesium salicylate and bismuth subsalicylate.

A number of these compounds are also used for treating some skin conditions such as acne and warts. You can directly rub creams as well as other preparations containing salicylates onto the skin for treating a number of skin disorders. In addition, you can also take these compounds orally for treating inflammation and joint pain. When applied topically to the affected joints, these compounds are absorbed by the skin, thereby providing relief from inflammation and joint pain. However, different from aspirin, these compounds do not cause the blood to become thinner or have an anti-coagulant effect. On the other hand, it needs to be borne in mind that salicylates do not offer any benefits to our cardiovascular system. People using salicylates ought to be aware of this as it is of importance.

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It is worth mentioning here that people who intake salicylates in excessive amounts face the risk of developing salicylism - a type of food poisoning. People who are sensitive to these compounds and have salicylate intolerance may also suffer from skin outbreaks, nausea, and difficulty in breathing as well as vomiting owing to their exposure to these compounds. A doctor can help do diagnose whether or not a patient is sensitive to salicylates by asking him to undergo a series of tests that involve increasing the dose of these compounds incrementally and see whether he/she develops any symptoms related to the condition. At the end of the tests, if an individual does exhibit symptoms but does not have sensitivities to salicylates, the patient may be required to make necessary dietary changes so that they avoid foods containing high amounts of these compounds.

There are a number of foods that contain elevated levels of salicylates and these may include prunes, cheese, cherries, nightshade vegetables, spinach, peppermints, ice cream, coffee, pistachios, broad beans, grapes, almonds and several herbs. In fact, your physician can provide you with a complete list of sensitivities and also advise you on the foods that you need to avoid for your health. The doctor can also advise you on which foods you should consume in moderation. At the same time, it is vital that you stay away from using skin creams as well as other beauty products that enclose salicylates. Salicylates are usually added to decrease puffiness as well swelling in the skin.

What causes salicylate sensitivity?

Salicylates occur naturally in specific foods and can be produced synthetically also. They are generally used in products such as toothpaste, aspirin and food preservatives. It has been found that naturally occurring as well as synthetic versions of salicylates can result in adverse side effects in a number of people.

Many plants produce salicylates naturally and their purpose is to protect the plants from detrimental elements such as diseases, fungus and even insects. The natural form of salicylates is present in an assortment of foods, which include vegetables, fruits, nuts, teas, coffees and honey.

On the other hand, the synthetic form of salicylates is generally used in the form of food additives and is also present in medicines such as Pepto-Bismol and aspirin.

Salicylates are present in higher concentrations in medicines such as aspirin compared to their presence in various foods. This is the main reason why salicylate intolerance is generally associated with medications. For instance, usually our dietary intake of salicylates varies from 10mg to 200mg in a day. Compared to this, one dose of aspirin may enclose anything between 325mg and 650mg of salicylate subject to the type of the medication.

Although intake of salicylates in very high amounts may cause negative effects in any individual, most people can consume foods containing high amounts of this chemical compound every day or even take one or two aspirins for curing headaches without suffering much harm. On the other hand, people who are sensitive to salicylates may endure adverse side effects when they intake plenty of foods containing salicylates or use any product that may enclose slightest amount of these chemical compounds. This is primarily because the ability of such individuals' body to metabolize as well as excrete these chemical compounds from their body is much less.

It is believed that sensitivity to salicylates is a result of excessive production of leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are basically inflammatory mediators that are associated with various health conditions, which may include inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and rheumatic arthritis.

Such excessive production of leukotrienes is a result of holding back cyclooxygenase, which is an enzyme that controls leukotriene production. When leukotrienes amass in our body, it results in the development of various symptoms that as associated with salicylate intolerance.

While the precise number of people who suffer from salicylate intolerance is yet to be ascertained, it appears that this condition in more prevalent in adults suffering from asthma. According to modest estimates, anything between 2% and 22% adults who suffer from asthma also have salicylate intolerance.

In addition, it has been found that individuals who have food allergies and suffer from inflammatory bowel disease are also sensitive to these compounds, and therefore also suffer from salicylate intolerance.

Side effects and cautions

While salicylates offer us a number of therapeutic benefits, and are useful for many people, many others with specific conditions are advised not to use these chemical compounds. Especially people suffering from vitamin K deficiency, liver impairment, asthma, gout, acute anemia, bleeding disorders and peptic ulcer disease should stay ways from salicylates. Some people are known to have allergic reactions to salicylates and they too are advised not to use these chemical compounds.

These apart, people who are already taking anti-coagulant medications like Coumadin (warfarin) should also avoid taking specific salicylates. Salicylates form an active ingredient of aspirin and, hence, children below the age of 16 years and suffering from viral infections should also stay away from aspirin as it may increase the chances of developing Reye's syndrome. Last, but not the least important, in general even elderly people are very likely to develop toxic response to salicylates compared to other people. So, they too need to avoid using substances or medications that contain salicylates.


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