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OTC pain reliever differences

Not all OTC pain medications are appropriate for everyone. There are 2 main types—and understanding the differences could matter to your health.

There may seem to be dozens of choices on store shelves, but there really are only 2 main types of oral over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: acetaminophen and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). They may treat the same symptoms, but they work differently in your body and may have different active ingredients, warnings, and dosing directions. One type may be more appropriate for you, based on your age, health conditions, and other medicines you take. It’s important to understand pain reliever differences so that you can make the right choice for you.

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Two Main Pain Relievers

What to know about WARNINGS

OTC pain relievers have different warnings on their labels about possible side effects. These differences are important to understand because they can affect your health. For example:

ACETAMINOPHEN

  • Taking too much (more than 4,000 mg in a day) could harm your liver

NSAIDs

  • If you take more than 1 medicine that contains an NSAID at a time, it increases your chance of stomach bleeding

  • If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, ask your doctor before using an NSAID

  • If you take aspirin for heart attack or stroke, ibuprofen may decrease that heart health benefit

Check the Drug Facts label on your medicine’s carton for a full list of warnings. Download a guide to Drug Facts labels

What to know about DOSING DIRECTIONS

The most common OTC pain relievers—acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and aspirin—all have different dosing directions. It is not safe to apply the directions of one pain reliever to another. To be sure you’re taking the right amount of your pain reliever, download and print the adult pain reliever dosing chart and keep it with your medicines.

American Gastroenterological Association 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved.