Tylenol, Advil, Oh My

I pulled a muscle, I’m running a fever, I have a nagging headache. I’ll just take an over- the- counter (OTC) medication, they are perfectly safe. I don’t need to worry about toxicity or overdose, right?… Actually false! 

With so many painkillers on the market, on top of the ailment that brought you to the topic of pain medication, simply trying to choose can be enough to bring about a headache. The two most common painkillers are Ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin are brands of Ibuprofen) and Acetaminophen, more commonly heard as it’s brand name Tylenol. 

What’s the Difference?

The biggest distinction between the two is their action on the body. Ibuprofen relieves inflammation in addition to pain and fever while Acetaminophen is only effective at relieving pain and fever. Seemingly so, due to these different actions, the side effects vary as well because the body breaks them down differently. 

Ibuprofen is removed from the body through the kidneys. Prolonged use of ibuprofen can cause kidney damage and stomach bleeding. When using high doses for times longer than recommended there is an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure if used for over 4 weeks.  

Acetaminophen, on the other hand, is broken down and removed via the liver. Therefore, there is a severe liver damage warning given. This risk is increased if taken with alcohol. It should also be noted, the effects of alcohol are notably increased while using Acetaminophen. 

Outside the location of action, there are some other details that differentiate between the two. Often times if you are allergic to aspirin, which is a different class of painkillers, you may have adverse reactions to the class of anti-inflammatory drugs. As learned above, Ibuprofen is in this class. Another concern is whether or not you have a sensitive stomach, if so you should try acetaminophen. Ibuprofen tends to increase stomach upset and can sometimes cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. If you have a history of liver disease, as you could take a guess, you should avoid the OTC medication that acts on the liver. Therefore it would be best to take Ibuprofen. 

How Often & Recommended Limits 

Both can be taken every 4 to 6 hours as symptoms persist and the smallest effective dose should always be used. For adults and children over 12 years do not exceed 3,000mg per day day of acetaminophen or 1,200 mg per day of ibuprofen. Also, be aware of many other common cough and cold medications containing doses of acetaminophen. 

Cheat Sheet: What is the pain?

Muscle injury, sprain, backache, or sinusitis

  • Try ibuprofen, it reduces inflammation, which is the common cause of pain from the conditions above. 

Headache, fever, or sore throat

  • Try acetaminophen first, these ailments may or may not be caused by inflammation. Due to acetaminophen generally causing less side effects it may be better to use initially. 

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