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How to Choose OTC Pain Relievers

Most of us don’t give it a second thought when we turn to over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines for our minor aches and pains. But how much do you really know about the drugs you are taking? Even though they are available without a prescription, it is important to remember each OTC pain medication is different, and all carry health risks.

There are two types of OTC pain medications, acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).


Most commonly sold under the brand name Tylenol. Acetaminophen generally causes fewer side effects than other OTC pain relievers. However, large amounts can severely harm your liver. Adults should not take more than 3,000 mg of acetaminophen in a single day.

  • Reduces pain and fever
  • Treats headaches, muscle aches, colds, and sore throats
  • Doesn’t treat inflammation 

HEALTH TIP: Make sure to read all prescription and OTC labels to ensure you are not taking multiple acetaminophen-containing products accidentally. Many cough and cold medicines and sinus medicines, such NyQuil, Vicks and Coricidin, contain acetaminophen.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are a kind of pain medication used to reduce inflammation from an injury or rheumatoid arthritis. 


Aspirin use can result in serious side effects, such as stomach bleeding, bleeding in the brain, kidney failure, and stroke. Before starting a daily regimen, be sure to check with a health care professional. 

  • Treats Pain, swelling and reduces fever
  • Helps prevent heart attacks and stroke 


One of the two most common OTC NSAIDs is Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). It may cause adverse effects in people with a history of heart and liver disease. 

  • Treat mild to moderate pain and inflammation
  • Fast acting
  • Relieves fevers, headaches and migraines 


The other common OTC NASAIDs is Naproxen. Naproxen is easier on your heart than ibuprofen, but make sure you talk to your doctor if you have high blood pressure or other chronic conditions. Long-term use may also cause stomach problems and affect kidney function.

  • Long term relief
  • Treats mild to moderate pain
  • Reduces inflammation from arthritis, muscle strains and joint sprains 

Take with care

No matter which over the counter pain reliever you choose, make sure you read the label carefully and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have health problems, are taking other medications, or aren’t sure which one to use. Make sure you take them with a meal, drink plenty of water, and do not exceed recommended dosages.

For more information, check out “Over-the-Counter Pain Meds,” a free brochure by the National Consumers League.


*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.