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Healthy Living

NSAIDs vs. Acetaminophen: Which Pain Medicine Should I Take?

Jul 23 2021

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) options for pain relief. Each comes in different forms, such as liquids, tablets, caplets and topicals. There are two main types of OTC pain medications: Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen.

With so many options and brands, what should you take for your pain or fever? Learn the differences between NSAIDs and acetaminophen so you can choose the best medicine for your needs.

What is the difference between NSAIDs and acetaminophen?

NSAIDs and acetaminophen pain relievers work in different ways to relieve symptoms. That’s why you can safely take both classes of drugs at the same time. However, you should alternate the dosages of drugs every few hours and take only the recommended dosages.

How do NSAIDs work?

NSAIDs work by blocking the enzyme, called cyclooxygenase, which makes prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemicals that cause inflammation. As a result, you will feel a decrease in swelling, pain and fever.

Here’s a list of OTC NSAIDs:

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Diclofenac (Voltaren)

You should also avoid mixing aspirin with another NSAIDs at the same time.

How does acetaminophen work?

Acetaminophen relieves pain and fever by reducing the production of prostaglandins. If your pain is not due to inflammation or swelling, acetaminophen is fine to use.

Acetaminophen is one of the most common drug ingredients, found in hundreds of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Here’s a list of common OTC products used for pain relief that contain acetaminophen.

  • Actifed
  • Coricidin
  • DayQuil
  • Dimetapp
  • Excedrin
  • Midol
  • NyQuil
  • Tylenol

What are the side effects of each drug?

The side effects of NSAIDs and acetaminophen can differ. That’s because your body breaks down and removes each type of drug in a different way.

Your kidneys remove NSAIDs. Your liver removes acetaminophen. If you have a history of either kidney or liver disease, talk to your doctor before taking these medications. If you’re pregnant, avoid ibuprofen and talk to your doctor about getting the green light to take acetaminophen.

When should I take ibuprofen or acetaminophen?

It’s a personal preference whether you want to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for minor pains and fevers. Some people feel that acetaminophen works better for colds and fevers, while ibuprofen brings relief from headaches and muscle pain.

As with all medication, reach out to your primary care provider with any questions or concerns you may have about taking ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

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