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Disease, stress, clumsiness and time all take a toll on us humans as we go through life, many times reminding us of their presence through pain. Ouch! In our rush to feel better, many times we are tempted to grab the nearest pain killer and hope it does the trick, but wouldn’t it be much better if we actually knew what we are putting into our bodies? The following sections provide a breakdown of three of the most popular over the counter medications—acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin), and acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin)—to provide an easy to understand snapshot of what these drugs do inside your body, and what their recommended uses are, according to the FDA.


 Acetaminophen is the main active ingredient in Tylenol.

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Acetaminophen, more commonly known by the brand name Tylenol, is a mild analgesic that, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is commonly used for headaches and is a major ingredient in cold and flu medicine. The FDA states that acetaminophen is a good alternative to aspirin and ibuprofen for people with a sensitive stomach, as it is less aggressive to the lining of the stomach. Although better for one’s stomach, acetaminophen is worse for one’s liver. To prevent liver damage, it is very important that one does not drink alcohol while taking this drug, and that one does not take more than the amount recommended on the label. It is important to note that the FDA does not categorize acetaminophen as an anti-inflammatory drug; this means that it does not reduce heat, redness, or swelling from injuries.


 Ibuprofen is the active ingredient in Motrin.

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Ibuprofen, more commonly known by the brand names Advil or Motrin, is an anti-inflammatory pain reliever that is categorized in the NSAID family of drugs. NSAIDs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that work to decrease pain and inflammation in the body. According to the FDA’s drug database, ibuprofen is favored among the medical community because it acts fast to relieve pain and does not stay in the body for a long time. Unlike acetaminophen, this drug is quite irritable to the stomach and kidneys. People with stomach sensibility or kidney problems should consult with their doctor before taking ibuprofen on a regular basis, as irritation from this drug can lead to long-term damage.

Acetyl-Salicylic acid

Acetyl-Salicylic acid is the chemical compound found in what is commonly known as aspirin.

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Acetyl-Salicylic acid is more commonly recognized as aspirin and is sold by the popular brand names Bayer and Ecotrin. According to the FDA, aspirin, although helpful in relieving pain and inflammation, is less favored than ibuprofen and acetaminophen because it is more irritable to the lining of the stomach and more damaging to the kidneys. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that children under the age of 18 should not be given aspirin because there is an increased chance for them to develop Rye’s syndrome: a serious and rare illness that affects the blood, liver, and brain of people who were recently affected by the flu.

According to Goodman and Gilman’s, The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, like ibuprofen, aspirin is categorized in the NSAID family of drugs; however, aspirin undergoes a different kind of metabolism than ibuprofen, due to the blood thinning properties found in aspirin and not other NSAIDs. This property of aspirin can be dangerous to people already on anti-clotting medication or sufferers of hemophilia, as it can cause clotting factors to drop to a dangerously low level. That said, indications from the FDA state that aspirin’s anti-clotting properties can also be very helpful; for example, a small dose of aspirin per day can decrease a person’s chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

Hopefully, these descriptions of three of the most commonly used over the counter pain medications will help you make a better choice about which drug will most adequately treat your ailment. Whenever you take medicine, please do not forget to check the expiration date and read the label on the bottle to make sure there are no contraindications to any medicine you may already be taking. Remember, if you have questions about any kind of medication you take or are considering taking, it is always best to ask your doctor or pharmacist. I am sure they will be happy to answer any questions you have and direct you to the pain medication that will best fit your needs!

Featured Image Source: The Javorac

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