The number of over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications out there is astounding. When faced with dozens of variations of one basic drug, it can be hard to tell your Tylenol from your Advil from your Motrin. However, despite the wide variety of OTC pain medications circulating, there are only two main types: acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs).
Acetaminophen, found in name brands like Tylenol and Panadol, can be used to relieve pain and reduce fever. This works by affecting certain parts of the brain where pain and body temperature are controlled. While it can treat the pain associated with many conditions, acetaminophen does not reduce swelling, and therefore, does not treat any of the underlying conditions.
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NSAIDs are found in three primary forms: aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Aspirin is found in name brands like Bayer and Ecotrin, while ibuprofen is found in Advil, Motrin, and Nuprin. Aleve, Anaprox, and Naprelan all contain naproxen.
NSAIDs are different from acetaminophen in that they act on chemicals found in the body called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins promote inflammation, which can cause pain and fever. Therefore, by blocking prostaglandins, NSAIDs can be used to reduce pain and fever, as well as treat the inflammation associated specifically with certain conditions, like arthritis.
So, how should you choose between the two? Both acetaminophen and NSAIDs can be taken for headaches, muscle aches, and cold and flu symptoms. In those cases, you should just choose whichever works best for you. But in certain situations, one may work better than the other. For example, NSAIDs are said to be more effective for menstrual cramps, and studies suggest that acetaminophen is better for cold symptoms.
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You may also want to consider other factors when deciding which pain medication to take. When treating a child with the flu or chicken pox, you may want to avoid aspirin because of its link to Reye’s Syndrome. If you’re taking NSAIDs long-term, you’ll want to be mindful of risks like stomach bleeding. Also, be sure to not take acetaminophen with alcohol, as the combination of the two can cause liver damage.
Regardless of its widespread use, over-the-counter pain medication can get complicated. There’s a wide variety of options available to consider, each with its own differences. It’s also tempting to take more than the standard dose, as they sometimes seem to be a cure-all. However, they don’t tend to treat underlying causes of pain, so if your discomfort continues, be sure to talk to a physician. And as with all medications, there are risks and side effects involved, so always read the label and don’t exceed the recommended dose.
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