It can be challenging to choose the right over-the-counter pain medication. While the choices are many, it’s very important to make a decision based on your symptoms and other medical issues. Not all pain relievers are created equal, and knowing the difference between various types can be very helpful.
Before taking any medication, you should consult with your physician and/or pharmacist. Additionally, you should carefully read labels for warnings and other information. This is especially true for combination products used for treating pain and other conditions, such as colds, allergies, arthritis and muscle aches.
Acetaminophen and Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly used over-the-counter pain medications. The main difference between the two is that NSAIDs help reduce pain, fever and inflammation. Acetaminophen only reduces pain and fever.
George Carro, Pharmacist at NorthShore Evanston Hospital, helps clarify the differences between these common over-the-counter pain relievers to help you make a better, more-informed decision:
Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) tends to be milder on the stomach. Keep in mind that acetaminophen will not help with inflammation. Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in many other medications, including cold and flu preparations. Be sure to read all labels carefully so you do not exceed the recommended maximum daily dose of acetaminophen. Safe for Children? Acetaminophen is generally considered safe for use in children. Always be sure to confirm proper usage and dosing information with your pediatrician. Side Effects? Liver toxicity, including liver damage and failure, can be associated with improper use of this drug. Alcohol consumption in combination with acetaminophen use may increase this risk.
NSAIDs—Aspirin (Bayer®), Ibuprofen (Advil ®or Motrin®), Naproxen (Aleve®) and others—can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Safe for Children? As with any drug for children, it is recommended to discuss proper usage and dosing information with your pediatrician. Please consider the following for use in children:
Side Effects? The most common side effects include stomach and kidney problems. It is recommended to take all NSAIDs with food to help minimize stomach irritation. If you have heart conditions, stomach ulcers or blood disorders, please consult with your physician before taking these medications.
No drug—prescription or over-the-counter—is without risks. Always consult with your physician if you have any questions or concerns about your medications. Our NorthShore pharmacists can also answer questions and help you make informed, over-the-counter pain reliever selections.