Deciding which over-the-counter pain reliever to pull from the medicine cabinet depends on your age and your ache
WRITTEN BY Jenny Peterson
The vast array of over-the-counter medications on drugstore shelves underscores how much we value the availability of at-home treatments. In fact, Americans make nearly three billion trips annually to purchase over-the-counter medicines, according to a recent Consumer Healthcare Products Association study. The most common among them are pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), aspirin/citric acid/sodium bicarbonate (Alka-Seltzer), acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin.
But how should we decide among the many painkilling options? To select the correct medication, always read the label, emphasizes Roper St. Francis Healthcare primary care physician Dr. Emily Young. “Not all medications are appropriate for infants, children or the elderly,” she says. “Acetaminophen may be fine for routine use in healthy adults, whereas ibuprofen is usually better suited to address occasional pain and inflammation.”
“My favorite over-the-counter pain relief options are diclofenac/Voltaren gel for painful joints, Motrin for headaches or inflamed joints and Tylenol for fevers or headaches,” shares the doctor, noting that generic offerings typically lessen pain as well as their brand-name counterparts. Try alternating different types of pain relievers, such as Motrin and Tylenol, which can work in synergy. And always swallow pills while upright and with water (unless specifically instructed not to) to ensure the medication makes it to the stomach in a timely manner and avoid drug-induced esophagitis, internal damage caused by a lodged pill.
Those with chronic health issues such as kidney disease, diabetes or high blood pressure should be especially cautious when choosing a pain reliever. Some medications may worsen kidney disease, and several contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which increase the chance of stomach ulcers and bleeding when combined with alcohol. Alka-Seltzer also includes aspirin and should be avoided by seniors at risk of falling.
“No matter what,” says Dr. Young, “patients should tell their primary care doctors about any over-the-counter pain medication use, including its frequency, so the doctor can create a safe and effective personalized pain management plan.”
While nonprescription pain relievers can relieve minor aches and pains, long-term use may signal a bigger problem. “Sometimes, pain relievers are used as Band-Aids for underlying problems that should be addressed with a medical professional,” says Dr. Young. Call a doctor if you:
• Experience severe abdominal, pelvic or back pain
• Suffer abnormal or unusual bleeding
• Need a pain reliever for more than 10 days
• Are using a pain reliever primarily as a sleep aid
• Feel continued pain following an injury
• Have severe pain symptoms