Your Guide to Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers

Posted at 7:07 PM on Jun 3, 2024

Northwest Family Clinics – Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers

Whether it's for everyday aches and pains or managing pain after a procedure, many of us turn to over-the-counter pain relievers like NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These medications are commonly recommended for numerous uses, but it's important to know how to take them properly and understand any side effects or cautions. 

What Are Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers?

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are medications you can buy without a prescription at almost any drug store, Target, Walmart, Dollar General, etc. They can help treat headaches, muscle aches, arthritis, and minor injuries. The most common ones you'll find are:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) 
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Aspirin

How Do They Work?

  • Acetaminophen works by blocking pain signals in your brain and is also good for reducing fever.
  • NSAIDs like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin reduce inflammation and pain by inhibiting enzymes that produce prostaglandins, chemicals responsible for inflammation, pain, and fever.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. When Should I Use Acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen is great for mild to moderate pain, such as headaches, menstrual cramps, and minor aches. It's also good for bringing down a fever. Plus, acetaminophen may be easier on the stomach compared to NSAIDs, making it a safer choice for those with stomach issues or bleeding disorders. If you are pregnant, acetaminophen is generally a safer choice, but always consult your doctor first. Acetaminophen is also the primary pain reliever/fever reducer for children younger than 6 months of age.

2. When Should I Use NSAIDs?

NSAIDs are ideal for pain that involves inflammation, such as muscle aches, sprains, arthritis, pain after dental procedures, and menstrual cramps. They're also good for reducing fever and pain from minor injuries.

3. What Are the Potential Side Effects?

  • Acetaminophen is generally safe when used as directed, but high doses can cause liver damage. Be careful not to exceed the recommended dose, and watch out for other medications that might contain acetaminophen.
  • NSAIDs' common side effects include stomach upset, heartburn, and nausea. Long-term use or high doses can lead to stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney damage, and even increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

4. Are There Any Cautions or Contraindications?

  • Acetaminophen – Avoid alcohol while taking acetaminophen to reduce the risk of liver damage. If you have liver disease or drink heavily, talk to your doctor before using it.
  • NSAIDs – People with a history of stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney disease, heart disease, or high blood pressure should be cautious and talk to a doctor before using NSAIDs. Also, avoid taking them on an empty stomach to minimize gastrointestinal side effects.  Should also avoid use during pregnancy and in infants under 6 months old.

5. Can I Combine Different Pain Relievers?

It's generally safe to alternate between acetaminophen and NSAIDs, as they work differently. However, you should not combine different NSAIDs (like ibuprofen and naproxen) because of the increased risk of side effects. Always check with your doctor before mixing medications.

6. How Long Can I Use OTC Pain Relievers?

OTC pain relievers are meant for short-term use. If your pain lasts more than a few days or you find yourself needing these medications regularly or in higher doses, it's time to talk to your doctor.

Northwest Family Clinics – Pain Medications

7. Should I buy Generic or Brand Name OTCs?

Generic medications are generally just as effective as name-brand medications. They contain the same active ingredients and must meet the same standards for safety and effectiveness. Generic medications are less expensive because they don't bear the initial development costs that name brands do, and the FDA ensures that all generic medications meet the same high standards as name brands.

In rare cases, you might react to an inactive ingredient in a generic medication. If you notice any new side effects after switching to a generic, consult your doctor.

Tips for Safe Use

  • Read the label, follow the dosage instructions, and pay attention to warnings.
  • Check the ingredients to avoid taking too much of the same ingredient (can commonly occur with combination cold and flu medications).
  • Consult your doctor before taking OTC, especially If you have pre-existing conditions, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are on other medications.

OTC pain relievers can be very effective when used correctly. Knowing the differences between acetaminophen and NSAIDs, their side effects, and the precautions can help you manage pain safely. If you have any questions or concerns about using these medications, don't hesitate to contact your healthcare provider for advice.