Today's Medicine

Over-the-Counter Relief: Which One is Right For You?

Countless choices

If you’ve been wandering the pharmacy medicine aisle, wondering which of myriad of choices of pain medication is right for you… you’re definitely not alone. So many of my patients ask me, with all of the choices out there, how do they find the right medicine for relief? 

While every situation is different, finding the right over-the-counter medication should begin by identifying the source of your pain.

Anti-inflammatory medications

Generally, if you are experiencing pain due to an element of inflammation, then that’s where we reach for ibuprofen or NSAIDS. For example, if you wrenched your knee, and don’t have any reason you shouldn’t take these medications, then that’s where you would start. 

Anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), work by reducing hormones in your body that cause inflammation and pain. They consist of medications such as:

  • Aspirin (Bufferin, Bayer, and Excedrin)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
  • Ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)

Medication contradictions

There tends to be more drug interactions with NSAIDS and if you’re taking a prescription medication you should always ask your health care provider or the pharmacist at your local pharmacy before taking them. 

If you do take them, it’s important to take them with a full glass of water and with a healthy snack. If you take it on an empty stomach or you are dehydrated, you compound your risk for developing side effects from these medications.

Acetaminophen medications

If there is no inflammation accompanying your pain and you are just in a general type of pain such as a headache, if you have no contraindications, reach for acetaminophen or Tylenol. Just keep in mind it’s not an anti-inflammatory.

Acetaminophen is usually sold under the brand name Tylenol, but can also be found in many cold medications such as NyQuil and Robitussin. As with any medication, there are some contradictions for people who have liver problems. You should talk with your health care provider to make sure it is safe for you.

How much should you take?

A common problem I actually see with acetaminophen is that people generally don’t take enough, but you also have to be careful because you don’t want to take too much. In fact, fairly recently they changed the recommended maximum amount of acetaminophen to take in a 24-hour period, and that’s 3 grams, or 3,000 milligrams. Which is quite a bit. Generally, if acetaminophen is going to be taken for pain, it’s given between 325, 500 or 650 milligrams per dose.” 

Tackling a fever

Both acetaminophen and NSAIDS also have another unique property: they work well to bring down a fever. 

Both acetaminophen and NSAIDS are we call antipyretics, meaning they can lower your body temperature. Contact your health care provider if you do have a persistent fever, especially if you don't understand what is causing it. Fever is your body's natural response to something, and it's not always an infection.

Everybody is different

Another thing to remember, is that just because one type of medication works for one person, it may not work as well for another. Because medication can react differently with your own body’s chemistry, you shouldn’t give up if one medication doesn’t resolve your pain issues.

Sometimes one works better than the other depending on the person or sometimes they work the same or sometimes they don't work at all. It's all about trying to find a medication that works for that particular individual. 

As with any medication, talk with your Methodist Physicians Clinic health care provider or pharmacist before taking anything. It can be particularly important if you are on prescription medications of any kind. Also be sure to discuss any concerns about persistent or lingering pain.

Choosing pain medication video

Dr. Hays offers more information you can use in the medicine aisle of your local pharmacy in this video.


About the Author

Dr. Bret Hays knows that at Methodist, everybody has the same goal: to help people. 

He working hand-in-hand to deliver the best care possible to his patients at Methodist Physicians Clinic.

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