10 Things to Know About Pain Relievers

  • Choose Wisely
    Choose Wisely
    Naproxen, acetaminophen, aspirin—if navigating the pain reliever aisle has given you a headache, you're not alone. But it's important to choose wisely. Both over-the-counter and prescription painkillers are serious medicines that can actually cause pain and other harms if not used properly. Here's what you need to know.



  • Liver Damage
    1. Too much acetaminophen can harm your liver.
    Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is a leading cause of liver failure. Large doses—more than 4 grams (12 regular strength or eight extra strength Tylenol)—pose the greatest risk. But some people might be harmed by smaller amounts. Your risk is higher if you drink alcohol regularly or if your liver isn't healthy.



  • Close-up of woman's hands taking pills with glass of water
    2. Many other products contain acetaminophen.
    Tylenol is the best-known brand name. However, this ingredient often shows up in over-the-counter cold and headache medicines, including extra strength Excedrin (250 mg). Percocet, Vicodin, and other prescription pain relievers also contain acetaminophen. Read labels closely to make sure you get less than 4 grams per day.



  • Stomach Ache
    3. Anti-inflammatories can hurt your stomach.
    Many painkillers​ fall into a category called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This includes ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and the prescription drug celecoxib (Celebrex). They fight pain but can have serious side effects, including stomach bleeding. Talk with your doctor about these risks.



  • Doctor with stethoscope
    4. Taking anti-ulcer medications with NSAIDs can help.
    If you're prone to stomach woes, you can still take NSAIDs. Your doctor may recommend you take another medicine at the same time to keep your stomach from producing acid. Options include omeprazole (Prilosec) or other drugs known as proton pump inhibitors.



  • row-of-prescription-pill-bottles
    5. Painkillers can increase your heart risk.
    One prescription NSAID—Vioxx—was pulled from the market because it was shown to harm the heart. Other formulas, including ibuprofen and Celebrex, have also been linked to cardiovascular side effects. Naproxen seems to be the safest NSAID for your heart, but ask your doctor if you have concerns.



  • Daily Aspirin
    6. Take your daily aspirin first.
    Your doctor may have recommended a small daily dose of aspirin to prevent blood clots and decrease heart risks. If so, take it at least 30 minutes before you swallow ibuprofen or naproxen for pain. There's some evidence that these drugs interfere with aspirin's heart-healthy effects.



  • Blood Pressure
    7. Pain drugs can cause blood pressure hikes.
    Acetaminophen and many NSAID painkillers can boost your blood pressure. And though the harms are greatest if you already have hypertension, even people with normal blood pressure may be affected. But low-dose aspirin may actually lower blood pressure, especially if you take it at night.



  • Hand holding a pill box
    8. Stopping NSAIDs suddenly can cause harm.
    If you take NSAIDs regularly, don’t quit them cold turkey. Talk with your doctor about gradually decreasing your dosage and potentially taking a low-dose aspirin. Otherwise, harmful blood clots can form.



  • Kidney Failure
    9. Some NSAIDs can also cause kidney damage.
    While acetaminophen harms your liver, NSAIDs are harder on your kidneys. In extreme cases, they can cause these important organs to fail completely. Talk with your doctor about your kidney health. If you’re at risk, aspirin and ibuprofen tend to be the safest choices.



  • Female doctor fixing wrist brace on senior patients hand
    10. Stay smart—but don’t panic.
    It’s important to be aware of the risks linked to pain medicines. However, taking the occasional Advil or Aleve to relieve a minor ache isn’t likely to cause harm. Most serious side effects emerge only after long-term or heavy use.



10 Things to Know About Pain Relievers

About The Author

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 20
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.