Which Pain Relief Is Right for You?

A guide to the benefits, side effects, and dangers of taking over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium.
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Over-the-Counter Pain Relief

Medicine Cabinet

The drugstore shelves offer plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) options when it comes to pain relief. And lately we're hearing a lot about how taking an aspirin each day can decrease your risk of heart attack. But are you putting yourself at risk for other more serious problems in alleviating your aches? Remember: Just because these products are available without a prescription doesn't render them innocuous.

"Most people think, 'If it's an OTC, it must be safe,' but we need to think of them as drugs with toxicities, side effects, maximum doses -- and even lethal doses," says Victor Padron, PhD, an associate processor of pharmacy sciences at Creighton University in Omaha.

OTC pain relievers fall into two categories: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS, for short). While all of these ameliorate aches and pains and fever, only NSAIDs (pronounced en-SEDS) also bring down inflammation.

These medicines can be safely used if you follow package instructions. However, if you need pain relief for more than 10 days, you should call your physician, says Mary Lea Harper, PharmD, a professor in the pharmacy practice and science division at the University of Kentucky.

And if you're struggling with whether to splurge on a brand name or go with a generic, consider this: The active constituents are the same either way, explains Richard O'Brien, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. (Richard O'Brien bears no relationship to the writer of this story.) However, if you're looking for special features -- like a liquid gel capsule or an extended-release product -- you might opt for a specific brand.

Continued on page 2:  Which One Is for You?


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