Differences Between Major Over-The-Counter Pain Drugs

November 8, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

There are many over-the-counter pain killer choices and although they are often used interchangeably, they each have unique strengths and weaknesses. Knowing their differences can be extremely beneficial for choosing the most effective one for each situation.

This kind of information needs an upfront disclaimer, so I’ll warn you that this post is provided for information purposes only and it should not be taken as medical advice. Everybody is different and various medications can affect each person differently, be sure to seek professional advice before taking any medications. Also, read the sources listed at the bottom of this post for more detailed information.

Due to the cost of over-the-counter pain medication, they are often used in large doses for chronic pain. Therefore, it may be helpful to know that Tylenol and Ibuprofen do not interact with each other, so if you reach the maximum allowable intake of each per day, you can actually alternate them to increase the pain killing effects. Again, consult your doctor before doing this.

All of these pain relievers are generally used to relieve the same types of pain and symptoms: headache, arthritis, fever, menstrual pain, back pain, etc. But, each one has unique pros and cons. Hopefully, this comparison will help you ask your doctor the right questions to help find the right one for each scenario.


Uniqueness: Antiplatelet drug that improves arterial circulation. Small daily doses and/or large emergency doses are sometimes used to reduce risk of heart attack, stroke and blood clots in certain patients.

Warnings: Potential for allergic reactions, asthma complications, ulcers and stomach bleeding (especially in higher doses). If taking aspirin, doctors may recommend a break before taking ibuprofen. Should not be used to control flu, chickenpox or other viral symptoms in children and adolescents due to a risk of Reye’s syndrome.

Tylenol (Acetaminophen)

Uniqueness: Alternative for those with Aspirin allergies. Some acetaminophen products contain caffeine, especially ones that are marketed for headache and migraine relief. The caffeine makes the drugs more effective, which means you need less of them, which reduces cost and side-effects.

Warnings: Potential for liver damage, especially in high doses.

Advil (Ibuprofen)

Other Common Names: Nurofen (UK), Brufen, Motrin.

Uniqueness: Is better at reducing fever than Tylenol. Although it is an antiplatelet drug, its antiplatelet properties are mild and short-lived when compared to aspirin. One of the scientists who developed the drug, Dr Stewart Adams, discovered its hangover mending capabilities first hand shortly after the drug was finally approved for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Warnings: Should not be used during last trimester of pregnancy. If taking aspirin, doctors may recommend a break before taking ibuprofen. Can cause upset stomach.

Aleve (Naproxen)

Uniqueness: Powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Doesn’t just relieve pain, may reduce the inflammation that is causing the pain.

Warnings: Should not be used by nursing mothers. Can cause upset stomach.

All of the above drugs, except for Tylenol, are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID). That means they are generally better at treating pain caused by inflammation than pain killers that do not reduce inflammation. They are a very popular form of pain killer, in 2001 there were more than 30 billion NSAID doses purchased over-the-counter and over 70 million prescriptions in the United States alone.

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Sources: Wikipedia (Advil, Tylenol, Aleve, Aspirin, NSAID), PubMed (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Naproxen, Aspirin), Manufacturers (Tylenol) Consumer Reports (PDF), Vaughn’s Summaries


Taking medications in excess, even if the drugs involved are over-the-counter ones, may also require substance abuse treatment later on.

Entry filed under: Demystified, Health and Beauty. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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