No doubt you’re familiar with the three most commonly used active ingredients in OTC pain relievers. But you may not know that each one works differently in how it addresses your pain. Trust: You’ll want to keep this info handy.
Acetaminophen This is commonly used for pain and fever, but not for swelling and inflammation. Acetaminophen works by reducing pain signals within the nervous system, as opposed to the site of the injury itself, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (If you have liver disease, check with your doctor before use, as acetaminophen in high doses has been linked to liver damage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)
Ibuprofen is a type of fast-acting nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which can be used to treat pain and reduce fever. Ibuprofen is often recommended for pain conditions caused by inflammation and swelling (like muscle pain or menstrual cramps). (One downside of NSAIDs, is that they can cause an upset stomach, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
Naproxen: Another NSAID that’s effective for treating pain, swelling, and inflammation, Naproxen can also reduce fever. Naproxen is considered to be a long-acting option compared to Ibuprofen, but takes effect more slowly. It’s used to treat chronic conditions. )Because it tends to be taken for longer periods of time and usually at higher doses than other NSAIDs, studies have linked Naproxen to stomach issues like ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding more so than Ibuprofen.)
Particular meds will be more effective because of how they work on your pain, though personal preference also plays a role. Here’s what’s recommended for five common bothers.
Headache: Both Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen are both effective for headache pain, according to the Mayo Clinic, so choose one based on whether you have other symptoms or on your past experience with either drug.
Fever: Both Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen can help bring down a fever, although the National Institute for Health cites Ibuprofen as slightly more effective. However, if you’re also dealing with cold and flu symptoms, you’ll want to look for a remedy that contains cough-suppressing medication like Dextromethorphan HBr.
Sinus congestion & pain: Sinus congestion makes your head feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world, thanks to the inflammation caused by your swollen sinuses, says the Cleveland Clinic. Reach for a medicine containing Acetaminophen to help with your headache pain as well as a nasal decongestant like Phenylephrine HCl to help relieve your sinus congestion and pain.
Back pain and muscle pain: These two types of common pain are caused by inflammation, so NSAIDs are going to be your bff for managing them like a boss, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If the pain is acute (i.e. it starts suddenly and lasts less than a few weeks), Ibuprofen is your best bet. If it’s chronic (i.e. it lasts longer than a few months despite treatment) then Naproxen might be your best bet.
Period pain: Menstrual cramps are caused by an increase in your body’s production of prostaglandins—hormone-like chemicals that are also responsible for pain and inflammation. They trigger the muscle contractions in the uterus that cause it to expel its lining and begin to bleed. Because of this uptick in inflammation, the experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say Ibuprofen is a stellar choice for this type of pain, as it helps to reduce your body’s production of prostaglandins.
If you’re ever unsure which remedy is right for your needs, check with your doctor or a pharmacist for the 411. The faster you can find the right medicine, the faster you can get back to feeling like the best version of you.