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Painkiller Primer: How to Choose the Right Pill for Your Aches and Pains

When pain strikes, we often reach for the closest painkiller in the medicine cabinet. But just because it’s there, doesn’t mean it’s the right one.

We compared the top over-the-counter painkillers out there, so the next time a headache hits or your sinuses scream, you’ll know which one to turn to.


What it’s found in: Tylenol and many over-the-counter combination products (for example, cold medicine).

What it’s best for: Occasional headaches, reducing fevers, arthritis, and muscles aches and pains.

What it’s not great for: Severe pain and chronic headaches.

What we like about it: It’s a terrific option for people with acid reflux disease and ulcers, or those on blood thinners of any kind, because it doesn’t cause stomach irritation or interfere with bleeding and clotting. It can also be taken on an empty stomach, and given to children of all ages (just be sure to talk to your doctor about dosing).

What to watch out for: Accidental overdosing is easy, especially if you use multiple products that contain it. Overdosing can lead to significant liver damage, especially if used with alcohol. If you have liver disease, talk to your doctor before using it.


What it’s found in: Anacin, Bayer Aspirin, Bufferin and many over-the-counter combination products.

What it’s best for: Minor aches and pain, and inflammation.

What it’s not great for: Intense pain.

What we like about it: Daily use of a low-dose aspirin may lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke, but be sure to talk with your doctor before using it for this purpose.

What to watch out for: It can cause stomach upset, heartburn and indigestion. High doses come with a risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney damage and stroke. Because of its anticlotting properties, it’s not safe for those with bleeding disorders or if you take a blood thinner. Never use it for children under the age of 18. 


What it’s found in: Advil, Motrin and Nuprin.

What it’s best for: Headaches, menstrual cramps, sore and injured muscles, sinus pain, earaches and toothaches, joint inflammation and fever reduction.

What it’s not great for: Chronic headaches.

What we like about it: It acts quickly, and has a lower risk of gastrointestinal and kidney problems than other common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin or naproxen.

What to watch out for: Ibuprofen has similar warnings as aspirin, but can be purchased in higher doses that are more damaging to your body. Do not take more than the recommended amount, and avoid using ibuprofen before and after surgery. If you take aspirin for heart attack or stroke prevention, ibuprofen may decrease the heart health benefit. Do not give ibuprofen to children under the age of 6 months.


What it’s found in: Aleve and Naprosyn.

What it’s best for: Lasting headaches, arthritis, sprains, sunburns and other inflammation-based pain.

What it’s not great for: Quick pain relief and fever reduction.

What we like about it: Once it kicks in, it lasts longer than ibuprofen and other over-the-counter painkillers, usually eight to 12 hours instead of four to eight.

What to watch out for: Like other NSAIDs, high-dose or long-term use can cause gastrointestinal, kidney and heart damage. It may also interfere with prescribed medication and decrease the heart health benefit of aspirin. Never give over-the-counter naproxen to children under the age of 12.

No matter which painkiller you use for your needs, always be sure to take the smallest effective dose for the shortest amount of time. Do not exceed the recommended dosage. And if you choose an NSAID, like aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen, it’s always best to take it with meals to prevent GI upset and bleeding.

If you feel that you need to take painkillers most days of the week, you should talk to your doctor to address the cause more effectively. To find a primary care doctor near you, visit OhioHealth.com.

Infographic comparing different painkillers and their uses and non-uses


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