A woman looking at different pain medications.
Healthy Living

What Are the Different Types of Pain Medication?

Jul 23 2021
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With so many options and brands for over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, what should you take?

First off, there are two basic kinds of OTC pain medications: Acetaminophen and Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Each comes in different forms including caplets, liquids, topicals and tablets.

We are here to help by breaking down the differences between acetaminophen and NSAIDs. This way, you can pick the best pain medication for you.

Acetaminophen vs. NSAIDs: What’s the difference?

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs both relieve pain but work in different ways to get the job done. For this reason, you can safely take both types of drugs simultaneously. However, be sure to follow the dosage instructions carefully and alternate your dosages every few hours.

How NSAIDs work

By blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, NSAIDs are able to stop that enzyme from producing prostaglandins, or chemicals that cause inflammation. Because of this, when taking NSAIDs, you will notice a decrease in fever, swelling and pain.

Some OTC NSAIDs are:

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

Important note: you should avoid mixing aspirin with other NSAIDs at the same time.

How acetaminophen works

Acetaminophen goes straight to the source and reduces the production of prostaglandins altogether. So, acetaminophen is fine to use if your pain is not due to swelling or inflammation.

Found in hundreds of prescription and OTC medications, acetaminophen is one of the most common drug ingredients.

OTC products that contain acetaminophen include:

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

Are there any side effects for these medications?

Side effects can be different for NSAIDs and acetaminophen because your body has a different way of processing each type of drug.

Your kidneys remove NSAIDs from your body while your liver removes acetaminophen. So, if you have a history of liver or kidney disease, talk with your primary care provider before taking either of these medications.

This is also true if you are pregnant. In fact, if you are pregnant you should avoid ibuprofen altogether.

So, which type of pain medication should I take?

That’s a total personal preference! Both types work for fevers and minor pains. Some people feel NSAIDs work better for headaches and muscle pain while acetaminophen is best for fevers and colds.

At the end of the day, it is up to you. However, as with all medications, be sure to keep your primary care provider in the loop. You can bring up any questions or concerns with them.

Learn about the health care services we provide at Mercy Health.


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