Faced with a migraine or a sprained ankle, all you want is a miracle drug that will take away the pain. But the painkiller section in your pharmacy is constantly growing, and offers a dizzying array of over the counter (OTC) drugs. From aspirin to Tylenol, there are a whole host of painkillers that differ in active ingredients and dosages. Each are meant for different kinds of aches and pains. How do you know which painkiller is right for you?
Considering the many different brands of painkillers available, it is surprising that painkillers, also known as analgesics, can generally be classified into only four categories: paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen. Each has different characteristics that make them more suitable for different types of pain. If you're looking for something to relieve a fever, all four types of medications are anti-pyretic, meaning that they will reduce your body temperature. However, if you're looking for a pain reliever, choosing the right painkiller depends on the kind of pain you are experiencing.
Aspirin is effective as a fever reducer. It is also an Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drug (NSAID), making it suitable for those suffering from joint pains, swollen injuries or menstrual pain. However, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) claims that it is less effective as a painkiller compared to other analgesics.
Side effects of aspirin include stomach pain, heart burn, nausea and vomiting. Therefore, like ibuprofen, it should only be taken after meals to prevent an upset stomach. Aspirin can be taken for longer periods than paracetamol. However, Superliving Pharmacy recommends that aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years, as it has been linked to a Reye's syndrome, which is a rare childhood disorder. Those with aspirin allergies should also avoid this drug. Aspirin is also an anti-clotting agent, so those with a bleeding or clotting disorder should not take this drug.
Also known as acetaminophen, paracetamol is one of the more familiar painkillers on the shelves. Common brands include Tylenol, Excedrin and Vanquish. Paracetamol is effective as a general painkiller and fever reducer. However, unlike the other three types of painkillers, it does not have anti-inflammatory properties, so it will not help with muscular pain relief, arthritis or sprains. Paracetamol is safe in recommended doses. However, an overdose of Tylenol is one of the foremost causes of acute liver failure in the United States. To be safe, adults should never take more than 1,000 mg at once, and not more than 4,000 mg per day. If you are drinking alcohol, don't take more than 2,000 mg per day.
According to the UK's Superliving Pharmacy, Paracetamol is gentle on the stomach, and can be taken both before and after meals. However, don't take this for extended periods of time to prevent liver disease. You should avoid this painkiller if you have a pre-existing liver condition, or if you are planning to drink high quantities of alcohol. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) also recommends that children under two years of age should not be given paracetamol.
Painkillers containing ibuprofen include Motrin, Advil and Nuprin. Classified as an NSAID, ibuprofen is effective for treating inflamed injuries, arthritis and menstrual pain. It is also sold in cream or gel form for topical muscle injury treatment.
Ibuprofen should always be taken after food as it can cause an upset stomach. The UK's NHS warns that prolonged use of ibuprofen leads to an increased risk of stomach, kidney and heart problems. Dr. Fred at The Independent advises that those suffering from asthma should avoid this and other NSAID drugs like aspirin as they have been known to trigger asthma symptoms. The NLM recommends that ibuprofen should not be given to children under four years of age.
Naproxen is an NSAID which also contains antipyretic properties for effective pain and fever relief. It can be used to treat arthritis and joint pain, menstrual pain and other muscle aches. Examples include Aleve and Anaprox.
If you take naproxen regularly, the NLM warns that you may have a higher risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery should avoid taking naproxen immediately before or after the surgery. Naproxen may also cause stomach problems, including ulcers, bleeding, or holes. If you experience bloody stool or vomit, heartburn or stomach pain, NLM recommends that you stop taking the drug and call your doctor.