Finding Safe and Effective Pain Relief

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Multiple medicine bottles

It’s easy to stop by the drugstore and pick up a pain reliever when you have aches and pains like a headache, sore throat or back strain.  Over-the-counter pain pills can be so effective in dealing with everyday pain that we can become casual about taking them. But they’re worth a closer look, to ensure that you choose one that’s safe and right for you. Here are some facts that you should know about over-the-counter pain relief.

There are two basic kinds of OTC pain relievers.

Though there are many different brands of pain relievers available, most of them they fall into two major groups. First are the NSAIDs, which stands for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Common NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen.  They work by reducing the amount of certain chemicals in your body that irritate your nerve endings, and they also help control your body’s temperature. That means they reduce inflammation, pain and fever. Acetaminophen is the other main type of OTC pain reliever, and though experts don’t fully understand how it works, they think it reduces pain by blocking signals in the brain. Acetaminophen, like NSAIDS, can also lower a fever, but it does not address inflammation.  

Know what kind of OTC pain reliever might be best for your kind of pain.

For headaches, sore muscles, joint pain and stiffness, you can take either acetaminophen or an NSAID – both can work, but choose only one at a time. If you have a muscle strain or swelling, an NSAID is generally a better choice because it can help reduce inflammation while acetaminophen does not. For menstrual cramps, many doctors recommend ibuprofen, or if that doesn’t work, naproxen is another option. Acetaminophen is often a good choice for headaches.

Because some medicines like decongestants and other cold medicine can contain acetaminophen, be careful not to double up on dosage without realizing it, and be aware that some OTC medicines contain both aspirin and acetaminophen. Take the time to read the label before you buy to know what you’re taking and understand the correct dosage.

Unless your healthcare provider advises it, you should not take NSAIDs for more than ten days in a row, while acetaminophen can be safe to take for a longer period. Always take the pills as directed - more is not better. In fact, overdosing on OTC medicines can have dangerous consequences. NSAIDs can cause serious stomach problems and large doses of acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

OTC pain relievers can interact with prescription medicine.

Though side effects are rare, if you take medicine for a heart, liver or kidney condition, it’s important that you talk to your healthcare provider about your OTC meds. For people on blood thinners, like warfarin, NSAIDs can trigger stomach bleeding.  If you are on antidepressants, OTC pain pills may reduce their effectiveness. There is some evidence they may also increase blood pressure in some people or make their blood pressure medication less effective. Children under 18 who have flu or chicken pox should not take aspirin, which can cause Reyes syndrome, a potentially life threatening disease.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can be very effective and safe for treating a wide variety of everyday ills, including flu, colds, arthritis and toothaches.  They are readily available to help make you feel better. But they are medicine and, like any medicine, you should know what you’re taking, how much to take, how long it’s safe to take, and if you have any health conditions or are on prescriptions medications, contact your healthcare provider to make sure your choice is the right one for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Apr 28

  1. A Guide to Safe Use of Pain Medicine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

  2. Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers. Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health,

  3. Choose Painkillers Carefully If You Take Coumadin. Cleveland Clinic.

  4. Reducing Pain Reliever Risks. Berkeley Wellness.

  5. Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs for Arthritis. Cleveland Clinic.

  6. Pain Relievers: Understanding Your OTC Options.

  7. Caution: Popular painkillers may interfere with anti-depressants, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter. Harvard Health Publications.

  8. Over-the-Counter Medications Time Tool Clinical Reference. American College of Preventive Medicine.

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