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Picking a Pain Reliever: Which One Should You Take?

pain pills
All pain relievers are not equal. Your local drugstore probably has an entire aisle devoted to nonprescription pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and so on. Many medicines can help relieve pain, but the different types of pain relievers may have different benefits and can have different side effects and potential risks.


Aspirin is actually the first of a type of drug called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). As the name suggests, NSAIDs reduce inflammation in addition to relieving pain. Aspirin is effective at relieving the pain of headaches, toothaches, muscular aches and pains, and minor aches and pains of arthritis.

The majority of people can take aspirin without having any side effects. However, aspirin may upset your stomach. To minimize stomach upset, some aspirin products are buffered with an antacid or coated so the pills do not dissolve until they reach the small intestine. When taken long-term in high doses, aspirin may cause more serious stomach problems, such as bleeding and ulcers in your stomach and intestines. For this reason, people with ulcers should not take aspirin. Additionally, drinking alcohol while taking aspirin increases your risk of bleeding and ulcers in your stomach and intestines.

Children and teens should not take aspirin if they have a viral infection such as the flu. It can cause Reye’s syndrome in these age groups. Reye's syndrome is a rare disorder that may cause seizures, brain damage, and death.

In addition, people with the following conditions should not take aspirin:

  • History of asthma, rhinitis, and nasal polyps, known as the aspirin triad
  • Severe liver or kidney disease
  • Bleeding disorder
  • Aspirin or salicylate allergy
  • Pregancy or lactation
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Other Than Aspirin

Besides aspirin, other nonprescription NSAIDs include medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen. These drugs are useful for menstrual cramps, headaches, toothaches, minor arthritis, and injuries accompanied by inflammation such as sprains . They are also effective at reducing fever and inflammation.

Among the NSAIDs, however, there are some differences. Ibuprofen stays in the system for less time and may need to be taken up to every 4-6 hours.

Naproxen provides longer lasting pain relief and is usually taken every 12 hours.

When taken long-term in high doses, these pain relievers may cause serious stomach problems, such as bleeding and ulcers in your stomach and intestines. Drinking alcohol while taking NSAIDs increases your risk of bleeding and ulcers in your stomach and intestines. NSAIDs are of particular concern for elderly people because of the risk of bleeding and ulcers in the stomach and intestines.

NSAIDs can also increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, especially with long term use or in people who already have heart disease.

People with a history of allergic reactions to aspirin or NSAIDs, the apirin triad, and pregnant women in the third trimester should not use NSAIDs. Consult with your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you:

  • Have a history of bleeding disorders
  • Take blood-thinning medication
  • Have kidney or liver problems
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have heart failure

Acetaminophen relieves minor aches and pains, toothache, muscular aches, minor arthritis pain, headaches, and fever. However, acetaminophen may not reduce pain as well as NSAIDs if the pain is due to osteoarthritis or inflammation.

Acetaminophen has virtually no side effects when taken at recommended doses. However, it can cause serious complications, like liver damage, when taken in excess. It is important to remember that several prescription type pain relievers contain acetaminophen as one of the ingredients. One needs to be aware of this, as taking these in high number or taking them with acetaminophen may lead to overdose. Moreover, when taken along with alcohol, acetaminophen increases the risk of liver damage. This includes taking the drug the morning after a night of heavy drinking.

Acetaminophen is the pain reliever and fever reducer of choice for children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. It does not cause stomach upset or increase the risk of Reye’s syndrome. But, there are some studies that suggest an increase risk of developing asthma in people who take acetaminophen.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

US Food and Drug Administration


Canadian Pharmacists Association

Health Canada


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8/23/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Beasley R, Clayton T, Crane J, et al. Acetaminophen use and risk of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema in adolescents: ISAAC phase three. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2010 Aug 13 early online.

Last reviewed February 2015 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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