Understanding the Difference Between OTC Painkillers

When it comes to pain, we know that the first thing on anyone’s mind is finding a way to stop it (and fast!). Unless you want to suck it up and just deal with the pain, which you most likely don’t, your first step is probably to grab a painkiller from your medicine cabinet; however, what do you actually know about the different kinds of OTC pain relievers that you have? Do you know which pain relievers are most effective for targeting headaches, arthritis pain, and toothaches?

Let’s learn more about the most common OTC painkillers.


By inhibiting prostaglandins in the body, aspirin can alter how your body perceives pain and inflammation. Aspirin is a popular medication for alleviating minor aches and pains, as well as inflammation and fever. Some people may take aspirin to reduce their risk for a heart attack; however, aspirin isn’t right for everyone. This pill should not be given to children and people with blood-clotting disorders, as well as people on blood thinners.

Aspirin may also cause digestive issues including stomach ulcers, heartburn, and bleeding, so you must avoid alcohol while taking aspirin (as this can increase your risk for stomach problems).

Acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Acetaminophen belongs to a group of non-opioid analgesics and may work by blocking pain messages sent from the brain to the central nervous system; however, it’s important to note that acetaminophen is not an anti-inflammatory. So if you are dealing with inflammation or inflammation-related pain, you’ll want to skip the acetaminophen because it won’t be effective.

So, what can acetaminophen be effective at treating? It’s best used for any aches and pains related to:

  • Menstruation
  • Headaches
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Arthritis
  • Toothaches
  • Colds
  • Migraines

Since acetaminophen is less likely to cause stomach problems or high blood pressure, people with hypertension and those prone to stomach ulcers or bleeding may prefer to take acetaminophen over traditional NSAIDs.

If you are on blood thinners or are taking any type of medication, or if you have liver disease or other liver issues you’ll want to speak with your general doctor before you start taking acetaminophen or any kind of OTC painkiller.

What are NSAIDs?

NSAIDs are a group of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that help to ease pain and swelling. Ibuprofen and aspirin both fall under the category of NSAIDs, as does naproxen (aka Aleve). NSAIDs can be great at:

  • Reducing muscle aches, pain, and stiffness
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Reducing fever
  • Alleviating menstrual pain

If you have questions or concerns about any kind of OTC pain reliever, your general doctor is a great resource. Your primary doctor can recommend the right pain reliever for the issues you’re dealing with, and if you are dealing with new or worsening pain it’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor before simply taking a painkiller.

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