Picking the best over-the-counter pain reliever for your headache or chronic pain can be confusing and difficult. The shelves at your pharmacy and supermarket have dozens of different brand-name and generic pain relievers, all designed with the same basic goal—to help you with your pain.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are extremely popular thanks to their convenience and effectiveness. Sales of non-prescription medications were over $30 billion in 2015, with pain relievers near the top. However, you shouldn’t assume that just because these drugs are OTC that they’re safer than prescription options.
Choosing the best OTC pain medication and using it correctly is often an obstacle for consumers. Many consumers don’t know what they’re taking when it comes to OTC pain medications, and often take more than the recommended dose because they think it will increase efficacy. Taking larger dosages can be dangerous, especially when you’re taking multiple medications. If you’re taking OTC pain relievers on a regular basis, you should be especially aware of different categories’ risks.
Here are some of the major kinds of OTC pain relievers, what they’re best for treating, and what to know about them:
- Acetaminophen Common Brand Names: Tylenol.
Used to Treat: Headaches, pain, and fever.
Potential Side Effects and Risks: The FDA recommends a maximum dosage of 4000mg daily. If you go over that, your liver must work harder, and your risk for liver damage goes up. Many doctors recommend a daily maximum of 3000mg if taken for an extended period.
What Else You Should Know: Over time, concerns about liver damage from acetaminophen have become confusing. Many of the apprehensions stem from taking Tylenol alongside other medications that contain acetaminophen, including drugs like Percocet and flu medications. These additional medications can cause your daily dosage of acetaminophen to spike.
- Aspirin Common Brand Names: Bayer, St. Joseph. Also, commonly found in Excedrin and store-brand versions of Excedrin.
Used to treat: Headaches, pain from inflammation. Also used to prevent strokes and promote a healthy heart.
Potential Side Effects and Risks: Gastric bleeding, kidney dysfunction. Children shouldn’t take aspirin until mid-teenage years due to its linkage with Reye syndrome, which causes brain and liver damage.
What Else You Should Know: When taking Excedrin for chronic headaches, you can be at risk of “a rebound headache” when the drugs wear off and another headache comes on. Discuss all your medications with your doctor to determine what the best over-the-counter pain reliever option is for you.
|Aspirin is a good OTC pain relief choice for several conditions. Source: fda.gov|
Ibuprofen Common Brand Names: Advil, Motrin.
Used to Treat: Arthritic, joint, and dental pain, as well as headaches.
Potential Side Effects: Stomach bleeding and kidney problems, especially in patients 60 or older.
What Else You Should Know: Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory agent that fights prostaglandins, which are chemicals associated with pains like menstrual cramps, joint pain, and headaches.
Knowing more about the best common over-the-counter pain relievers can help you choose what’s right for your pain. Although you may not need a prescription, you should still talk to your doctor about which OTC pain medication is best for you.