Which Over-the-Counter Pain Medication Is Best?

Have a hangover or a sprained ankle? Use these tips from a drug information expert to safely choose the correct pain medication for your symptoms.

1:00 PM

Author | Kylie Urban

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin — or another option. It can be difficult to know which type of pain medication will best help what ails you.

SEE ALSO: Opioids: When the Harms Outweigh the Benefits

Margo Farber, Pharm.D., director of drug information services at the University of Michigan Health System, explains the basics to picking the proper option. First, there are two general categories when it comes to over-the-counter pain medications for adults: acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

"Both types of pain medications are usually safe and effective when taken at the recommended dosage level for short time periods," Farber says. "However, there are some differences between the two, in terms of what type(s) of pain they treat."

Farber explains the main differences between the most common over-the-counter pain medications, including which pain to treat with what in the table below.

Farber adds it's important to read the active ingredient label on the package to know the exact strength of the pain medication, which ingredients are included (especially for combination products) and to see the exact symptoms the ingredient should be relieving. In addition, she recommends not relying on the brand names, as they may change, and sometimes, the active ingredients can switch even if the brand name remains the same.

Remember: Consult your pharmacist before using any over-the-counter painkillers when taking other medications. A pharmacist can help you determine if there are potential drug interactions, or if you're in the clear.


More Articles About: Health Management Medication Guidelines Pharmacy
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]

734-764-2220

Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Subscribe
Featured News & Stories Pill capsule pushing through a paper with amoxicillin printed on it.
Health Lab
Rise seen in use of antibiotics for conditions they can’t treat – including COVID-19
Overuse of antibiotics can lead bacteria to evolve antimicrobial resistance, but Americans are still receiving the drugs for many conditions that they can’t treat.
Illustration of prescription bottle with a refill notice
Health Lab
In drive to deprescribe, heartburn drug study teaches key lessons
An effort to reduce use of PPI heartburn drugs in veterans because of overuse, cost and potential risks succeeded, but provides lessons about deprescribing efforts.
Person's hand holding an aspirin tablet with a glass of water nearby
Health Lab
An aspirin a day? Some older adults who take it may be following outdated advice
Many people aged 50 to 80 who said they take aspirin multiple times a week may not need to do so and could be causing health risks, according to National Poll on Healthy Aging.
Older man with hand on forehead, dressed in camouflage clothing
Health Lab
Ketamine helped many severely depressed veterans, study shows
Intravenous (IV) ketamine helped relieve the depression symptoms of half of the veterans who received it at VA hospitals.
Paxlovid pill green Covid medicine
Health Lab
A how-to guide to COVID treatments
A Michigan Medicine FAQ about Paxlovid, with new information since its FDA approval in May 2023.
Illustration of physician with prescriptions, indicating online options
Health Lab
Few older adults use direct-to-consumer health services; those who do don’t tell their regular provider
Buying health care services directly online offers convenience but also risks if patients don’t tell their regular doctor or provider. Poll looks at older adults’ use and attitudes.