Get to Know Your OTC Pain Medication

When we are struggling with minor aches and pains ranging from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes, most of us reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. The most common over-the-counter pain relievers are sure to ring a bell: Tylenol (Acetaminophen), Advil (Ibuprofen), Bayer (Aspirin) and Aleve (Naproxen). While we may each have a favorite go-to medication that seems to work best for us, we may actually be using the wrong one.

Some of the most common ailments that many contend with include menstrual cramps, headaches, backaches, fever, earaches and muscle soreness. While on the surface these medications may appear to treat the same symptoms, there are key differences in how they treat symptoms and the effects they may have on the body. Here are some of the most common questions about over-the-counter-medications answered.

What is an NSAID?

NSAID stands for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which relieve pain and reduce inflammation and fever. Drugs in this class include Advil (Ibuprofen), Bayer (Aspirin), Aleve (Naproxen) and several more. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Pain-Eze, Anacin…etc.) is actually a non-aspirin pain reliever, which means that it does not reduce inflammation; however, it does relieve pain and reduce fever.

How Do These Medications Work?

Both NSAIDs and Acetaminophen, work on a chemical level which means that they intervene in the pain process. When you experience pain it is because your brain is picking up on signals from your nerves. In response, your body produces hormones, but when you take an NSAID or Acetaminophen you are inhibiting your body’s ability to feel pain and in turn, limiting the swelling and fever that often accompanies it.

What Does Each Medication Treat Best?

NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Naproxen): Arthritis, Muscle Strains and Soreness, Fever, Menstrual Cramps, Earaches and Toothaches

Acetaminophen: Headaches, Migraines and Sore Throat

Which OTC Medications are Safe for Pregnant Women?

Acetaminophen is safer than NSAIDs for pregnant women. Not only is Acetaminophen more sensitive on stomachs, it is also less likely to raise blood pressure or cause internal bleeding.

How Do These Medications Impact Your Body?

NSAIDs are stressful for your kidneys and can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Acetaminophen is hard on your liver, especially if you consume alcohol frequently or use other medications with Acetaminophen; it is very common in cold and flu medications.

Are Generic Versions of These Medications Safe?

Typically, the generic versions of NSAIDs and Acetaminophen are just as safe and effective as the name brand versions. Remember that the dosing and drug facts may vary, so be sure to read the label for specific instructions and safety warnings.

The safest bet when trying to find the right medication, over-the-counter or prescription, is to talk to your physician. There are multiple factors that can impact a drug’s effectiveness and safety, such as genetics and lifestyle. To find the right physician for you, learn more about the providers at Gwinnett Medical Center.


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