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Pain Relievers --- What's the Difference?

woman holding pills

Choosing an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication can be frustrating. In fact, standing in the pharmacy aisle and staring at the dizzying array of options can give you a headache … which is exactly why you’re here!

So what will it be? Tylenol? Alleve? Ibuprofen? Here are a few guidelines that will help you decide.

To begin with, doctors usually recommend OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). The most common NSAIDS are aspirin, Ibuprofen and Naproxen. They are generally used to treat headaches, fever, and minor body aches and pain from sprains, strains and arthritis. They are also used for mild to moderate pain from inflammation.

Aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin, Excedrin) is a good choice for treating headaches, toothaches and arthritis pain. A drawback, however, is that it can cause heartburn and upset stomach so it’s best to take with food. It is never safe for younger children due to the risk of Reye’s Syndrome.

Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) is similar, but it doesn’t irritate the stomach and esophagus as much as aspirin. (It should also be taken with food.) Sold as Motrin or Advil, Ibuprofen is effective for treating fevers and reducing swelling and pain.

Naproxen (Aleve) is highly effective for muscle aches and pains because it is longer lasting than other OTC pain relievers. It can also be helpful for menstrual cramps in women.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is not an anti-inflammatory substance, so it doesn’t help with pain caused by inflammation. It is effective for headaches, fever and minor body aches and pains. Studies show that it can be harmful to the liver if it is taken too frequently at higher doses and for long periods of time. For high fevers, doctors often recommend alternating Tylenol with Ibuprofen every three to four hours.

“Most patients do just fine with over-the-counter pain relievers,” said Dr. Wayne Gravois, “because they are so similar. However, some can cause allergic reactions (particularly NSAIDS), and can be harmful if they are taken too often. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you find the right drug for your pain, and answer your questions about proper dosage and side effects.”

Wayne D. Gravois

Wayne D. Gravois, MD
Baton Rouge General Physicians - Family Health Center

Phone: (225) 381-6620