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Your body uses pain to tell you something is wrong, but in many cases,
the problem is minor and may be managed at home with the help of an
over-the-counter pain reliever. However, not every pain reliever is
right for every situation, and, like all medicines, they should be used
with care. Use this quick guide to pick the one that can maximize the
benefits and minimize the risks of using these products.
As you choose an over-the-counter pain reliever, keep the following in
What they are: Nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin and the non-aspirin
medications ibuprofen and naproxen. NSAIDs block the production of
prostaglandins, substances made by the body that cause pain,
inflammation, and fever.
Why to buy: NSAIDs relieve muscular and joint
pain and may help manage menstrual cramps. Some people find them helpful
for treating headaches, especially aspirin (see specialty pain
relievers below for more information). NSAIDs may also lessen pain
associated with colds, flu, and toothaches.
Things to consider: Non-aspirin NSAIDs
(ibuprofen, naproxen) slightly increase the risk of heart attack, while
aspirin decreases heart attack risk. If you have existing heart disease,
or if you already take daily aspirin to lower heart attack risk,
consult your doctor before using ibuprofen, naproxen, or additional
aspirin. All NSAIDs may increase the risk of bleeding and may cause
ulcers in some people. If you have a sensitive stomach, acetaminophen
may be a better option.
Children and teens should not use aspirin or ibuprofen as it can lead to
a rare, life-threatening reaction called Reye’s (pronounced “rise”)
syndrome in these age groups.
What it is: Acetaminophen is a non-NSAID
pain reliever and fever reducer that is believed to work by decreasing
the body’s sensitivity to pain (in other words, by raising the pain
Why to buy: Acetaminophen is a fever reducer
that may help manage many of the same pains as NSAIDs, including
headaches, toothaches, muscular and joint pain, menstrual cramps, and
painful cold and flu symptoms. Acetaminophen often is used instead of
NSAIDs, because it is easier on the stomach, and is safe for use in
children and teens.
Things to consider: Use as directed. Exceeding
the recommended dosage can cause liver disease and even death. Use
caution with acetaminophen and alcohol as this combination can harm the
liver. Acetaminophen may not be right for people with liver disease or
abnormal liver function.If in doubt, always consult your doctor.
What they are: Specialty pain relievers
include those that contain NSAIDs or acetaminophen, plus other
ingredients to treat a particular issue.
Why to buy: People use specialty pain relievers
when they have a cold or flu, to help them sleep when they have pain, or
to treat severe headaches such as migraines. The additional ingredients
are targeted to the problem. For example, cold and flu products may
contain pseudoephedrine, dextromethorphan, or guaifenesin, to manage
sinus pain, cough, and congestion, respectively. Migraine formulas often
contain aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen, a combination especially
effective for headaches.
Things to consider: These products contain the
same ingredients as regular pain relievers—either NSAIDs or
acetaminophen—so apply the same cautions. Additionally, you may need to
avoid other ingredients in these products. Consult your doctor if you
Some specialty pain relievers are not safe for use in young children and
those that contain aspirin always should be avoided. Ask your
pediatrician or pharmacist if you need help selecting an appropriate
product for your child.
What they are: “Topical” refers to pain relievers that are applied to the skin.
Why to buy: If you have pain over a small area,
such as a muscle or joint, a topical pain reliever can deliver medicine
straight to the area, without having to go through the digestive tract.
This may bring faster relief, typically with fewer side effects.
Things to consider: If a topical pain reliever
contains the same active ingredient as another medication you are using,
such as aspirin, do not take the two products together. Pain relievers
applied to the skin are still drugs and should be treated as such.The
same cautions apply, such as avoiding topical aspirin if you already
take daily aspirin or if you are at risk of bleeding or ulcers. Do not
use aspirin-based topical pain relievers on children or teens without
first checking with your doctor.
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If you have dietary restrictions and/or allergies, always read the ingredient list carefully for all products prior to consumption. If the ingredient list is not available on the product, check with the product manufacturer, or do not consume the product.