Your body uses pain to tell you something is wrong, but in many cases, the problem is minor and may be managed at home with the help of an over-the-counter pain reliever. However, not every pain reliever is right for every situation, and, like all medicines, they should be used with care. Use this quick guide to pick the one that can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of using these products.
As you choose an over-the-counter pain reliever, keep the following in mind:
Talk to your doctor if you experience prolonged or severe pain; unchecked pain can signal something serious that requires medical care.
Always compare ingredients to avoid accidentally taking two medications together that contain the same active ingredients.
If you are treating several aches and pains at once, check with your doctor or pharmacist about which medications are okay to use together.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist how best to avoid mixing drugs that should not be combined, including combinations of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs
What they are: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin and the non-aspirin medications ibuprofen and naproxen. NSAIDs block the production of prostaglandins, substances made by the body that cause pain, inflammation, and fever.
Why to buy: NSAIDs relieve muscular and joint pain and may help manage menstrual cramps. Some people find them helpful for treating headaches, especially aspirin (see specialty pain relievers below for more information). NSAIDs may also lessen pain associated with colds, flu, and toothaches.
Things to consider: Non-aspirin NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen) slightly increase the risk of heart attack, while aspirin decreases heart attack risk. If you have existing heart disease, or if you already take daily aspirin to lower heart attack risk, consult your doctor before using ibuprofen, naproxen, or additional aspirin. All NSAIDs may increase the risk of bleeding and may cause ulcers in some people. If you have a sensitive stomach, acetaminophen may be a better option.
Children and teens should not use aspirin or ibuprofen as it can lead to a rare, life-threatening reaction called Reye’s (pronounced “rise”) syndrome in these age groups.
What it is: Acetaminophen is a non-NSAID pain reliever and fever reducer that is believed to work by decreasing the body’s sensitivity to pain (in other words, by raising the pain threshold).
Why to buy: Acetaminophen is a fever reducer that may help manage many of the same pains as NSAIDs, including headaches, toothaches, muscular and joint pain, menstrual cramps, and painful cold and flu symptoms. Acetaminophen often is used instead of NSAIDs, because it is easier on the stomach, and is safe for use in children and teens.
Things to consider: Use as directed. Exceeding the recommended dosage can cause liver disease and even death. Use caution with acetaminophen and alcohol as this combination can harm the liver. Acetaminophen may not be right for people with liver disease or abnormal liver function.If in doubt, always consult your doctor.
Specialty Pain Relievers
What they are: Specialty pain relievers include those that contain NSAIDs or acetaminophen, plus other ingredients to treat a particular issue.
Why to buy: People use specialty pain relievers when they have a cold or flu, to help them sleep when they have pain, or to treat severe headaches such as migraines. The additional ingredients are targeted to the problem. For example, cold and flu products may contain pseudoephedrine, dextromethorphan, or guaifenesin, to manage sinus pain, cough, and congestion, respectively. Migraine formulas often contain aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen, a combination especially effective for headaches.
Things to consider: These products contain the same ingredients as regular pain relievers—either NSAIDs or acetaminophen—so apply the same cautions. Additionally, you may need to avoid other ingredients in these products. Consult your doctor if you are unsure.
Some specialty pain relievers are not safe for use in young children and those that contain aspirin always should be avoided. Ask your pediatrician or pharmacist if you need help selecting an appropriate product for your child.
Topical Pain Relievers
What they are: “Topical” refers to pain relievers that are applied to the skin.
Why to buy: If you have pain over a small area, such as a muscle or joint, a topical pain reliever can deliver medicine straight to the area, without having to go through the digestive tract. This may bring faster relief, typically with fewer side effects.
Things to consider: If a topical pain reliever contains the same active ingredient as another medication you are using, such as aspirin, do not take the two products together. Pain relievers applied to the skin are still drugs and should be treated as such.The same cautions apply, such as avoiding topical aspirin if you already take daily aspirin or if you are at risk of bleeding or ulcers. Do not use aspirin-based topical pain relievers on children or teens without first checking with your doctor.