Should you take the same medication for a sore throat that you take for a sore back? And what are the side effects? Learn the facts about pain relievers.
Pain relievers are among the most common forms of medicine people take. Most are available without a prescription and can be bought almost anywhere. Easy access to pain relievers, though, does not mean you should take them casually. You should be aware of common possible side effects and how to take them safely.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help reduce, relieve or manage discomfort caused by:
- Sore muscles
- Menstrual cramps
- Fever and pain following surgery
- Strep throat
- Sore throat
The two most common over-the-counter pain relievers are acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen. Some over-the-counter products – such as Excedrin – may even contain both types. Certain types of pain respond better to one pain reliever than another and people often respond slightly differently to each drug.
The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests acetaminophen may be a good choice for:
- Common aches and pains
- Long-term arthritis management
The academy recommends that women try ibuprofen for menstrual cramps. Naproxen or ketoprophen may also be used. Along with relieving pain, NSAIDs can reduce inflammation (swelling and irritation) and are often a good bet for sore muscles and other types of pain caused by inflammation.
How do they work?
Acetaminophen works on the part of the brain that receives pain messages and regulates body temperature. NSAIDs work on pain by reducing the production of prostaglandins. These are hormone-like substances that irritate nerve endings and help regulate body temperature.
Common drugs, common side effects
Pain relievers can cause serious side effects if you take them often, have medical conditions or take certain other medications. High doses of acetaminophen can cause liver damage. If you have a liver problem or drink too much alcohol with acetaminophen, even a standard dose can cause liver damage.
Talk to your doctor before you take NSAIDs. Long-term NSAID use can cause stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney damage. NSAIDs can also affect high blood pressure.
Children and aspirin don’t mix
Do not give aspirin and products containing aspirin to children under age 19. Children who take aspirin may develop Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness.
Parents should read the “active ingredients” portion of drug labels before giving medication to children. Be aware that some cold and flu preparations, Pepto-Bismol and other diarrhea remedies contain aspirin products. Other words for aspirin include:
- Acetylsalicylic acid
- Salicylic acid
Interactions with other medications
Over-the-counter drugs can interact with other medications, including prescription drugs. This can increase the risk of side effects. For example, taking aspirin and a blood thinner like Coumadin could lead to dangerous bleeding.
Acetaminophen is an ingredient in many over-the-counter and prescription medicines, such as pain relievers and cough and cold remedies. Check the labels for acetaminophen. Don’t take additional acetaminophen when you are taking these medicines. Combining them could lead to overdose.
NSAIDs may interact with aspirin you take to protect your heart or with blood-thinning medications.
Many over-the-counter drugs contain the same pain reliever or similar ingredients found in prescription drugs. This is especially true of cough and cold medicines that treat multiple symptoms. Combining over-the-counter medicines with prescription drugs may raise the dosage of pain relievers to levels much higher than intended.
The bottom line
While pain relievers are readily available, there are many factors to consider before taking them or giving them to children. Talk to your doctor about which pain relievers are safest for you and your family before you need to take them. If you have questions, call your doctor or nurse line to make sure you’re taking the right pain reliever.