Figuring out which over-the-counter pain reliever is the best one to use for your headache, fever, or muscle ache can be a real pain. Use this handy painkiller primer to help you navigate the drugstore shelves. (Remember though: when in doubt, always call your doctor!)
Common Brands: Tylenol
Class: analgesic (pain reliever), fever reducer
Best used for: pain not related to injury, fever
Advisories: Do not use acetaminophen to treat a fever higher than 103.1 for more than three days, or a fever that keeps coming back. Acetaminophen also should not be used regularly by people with anemia, liver disease, or kidney disease. High doses or regular, long-term use of acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially if combined with alcohol.
Other considerations: Acetaminophen is easy on the stomach, and a great choice for children who need pain or fever relief.
Common Brands: Bayer, Excedrin
Class: analgesic, anti-arthritic, anti-inflammatory
Best used for: muscle pain and fever in adults, headaches, mild itching, swelling and inflammation, arthritis, toothaches
Advisories: Use caution if you are taking blood-thinning medication or have a hangover. Do not take aspirin if you have asthma, a bleeding disorder, gout, hearing loss, kidney or liver problems, or ulcers.
Other considerations: Children and teenagers should not take aspirin because it’s associated with a rare disorder called Reye’s syndrome when taken by these groups.
Common Brands: Advil, Motrin
Class: analgesic, anti-arthritic, anti-inflammatory, fever reducer
Best used for: pain, fever, inflammation, menstrual cramps
Advisories: Use caution if you have asthma or nasal polyps, a stomach or intestinal disorder, angioedema, an allergy to other anti-inflammatory medicines, liver or kidney disease, a blood-clotting disorder, ulcers, or heart failure. Do not take ibuprofen with alcohol, aspirin, or steroids.
Other considerations: Ibuprofen is less irritating to the stomach than aspirin for some people. It also does not cause ringing in the ears, like aspirin can.
Common Brands: Aleve
Class: anti-arthritic, anti-inflammatory, fever reducer
Best used for: mild to moderate pain, fever, extreme inflammation
Advisories: Use caution if you are taking blood pressure medication, oral blood thinners, or anticoagulants. Caution is also advised if you have an aspirin allergy, asthma, a stomach disorder, or a blood-clotting disorder, or if you are pregnant (especially in your third trimester).
Other considerations: Naproxen sodium is less irritating to the gastrointestinal tract and is less likely to cause liver or kidney complications than other medications.