Health TipsOctober 13 2022

Know the Difference Between Your Pain Relievers

Pills in spoon on a blue background

Aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen? What’s the difference…

This may come as a surprise to some, but not all pain relievers are the same. In fact, the difference between many over-the-counter pain relievers can have various effects on your body.

People sometimes refer to a specific over-the-counter medication (OTC)--Tylenol, aspirin, Advil, etc.--even if they don’t have a specific brand in mind. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers all three effective for the same minor aches and pains. Each can reduce fever and relieve headache, muscle aches, menstrual pain, toothache, and similar discomfort—although they differ in their effectiveness against certain of these symptoms.

Aspirin a.k.a Bayer, Bufferin

The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid which inhibits the body of prostaglandins, concentrated substances where we feel pain. Prostaglandins increase the perception of pain, fever, redness and inflammation that may occupancy injuries. In short, aspirin reacts with your blood chemistry to inhibit the volume of prostaglandins. Aspirin is most often used to relieve minor pain, fever and inflammation, but it does have a unique set of drawbacks.

Drawbacks may include: disruption to the upper digestive tract (can cause upset stomach, heartburn, and dyspepsia); NOT recommended for hemophiliacs because of its anticoagulant (blood “thinning” agent) or for children (linked to Reye’s syndrome).

That being said, aspirin is still the most common over-the-counter pain reliever and now plays a huge role in the prevention of heart disease.

Acetaminophen a.k.a Tylenol

While many people have never heard of acetaminophen, everyone has heard of the pain reliever brand Tylenol. Acetaminophen was introduced in the late 50’s and shares Aspirin’s ability to relieve mild-to-moderate pain and to reduce fever, but it lacks aspirin’s anti-inflammatory effect. Although it can relieve the pain caused by inflammation, it can’t reduce the inflammation itself. As a result, it won’t do much for arthritis and sprains. Another noteworthy difference is that while consuming alcohol it is NOT recommended to take acetaminophen in any amount because the liver becomes more susceptible to damage. Doctors also argue that acetaminophen is easier to overdose than its peers which could result in fatality. The advantage to acetaminophen is that it is considered a “safer” alternative for those who have a sensitive stomach, making it the best headache treatment for people with acid reflux disease or ulcers. Acetaminophen is also safer for children than aspirin, but because of its many known combinations with sleeping agents, always read the label carefully.

Ibuprofen a.k.a Motrin, Advil

Ibuprofen and aspirin seem to work the same way in the body because both inhibit the production of prostaglandins, hormone like chemicals involved in causing pain and inflammation. Because of these effects it is widely used for arthritis and menstrual pains. Similar to acetaminophen, Ibuprofen can play a role in stomach upset, the most common side effect of both aspirin and ibuprofen. Because ibuprofen inhibits prostaglandins which exert a protective effect on the stomach lining, it increases the chances of stomach upset. However, ibuprofen is a happy medium on the “stomach-upset scale” between aspirin (more irritating) and Tylenol (less irritating).

When comparing pain relievers it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. Unless you have certain diseases, conditions, or pregnant, most individuals won’t go wrong with any of the three pain relievers (provided its use is occasional).

In general, anyone who should avoid aspirin for any reason should also avoid ibuprofen—and vice versa. Both drugs generally work the same way with similar side effects. Always read the dosage instruction on over-the-counter medications and consult your doctor if you have questions. If you need help finding a doctor, let us help you make an appointment.

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If you do not have a doctor and would like help finding one, UT Medical Center’s Healthcare Coordination can help. They will talk to you about what insurance you have, what type of doctor you need and what days are most convenient for you. Call them today at 865-305-6970 to make an appointment.

The Health Information Center at The University of Tennessee Medical Center provided this Healthy Tip. The Health Information Center is a library staffed by medical librarians and certified health information specialists. If you let us know your health information needs, we will do research for you and mail or email the results to you for free. You can call us at 865-305-9525. We also have a large collection of health books covering a variety of topics.

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