It’s the morning after a wild night out. You stumble to the medicine cabinet and stare blearily at the array of over-the-counter painkillers, wondering which one will bring the quickest relief (and why all the labels have to be so darn bright). Fortunately, you’ve taped this article to the cabinet door, and instead of guessing, you can just check our handy guide below.
There are two main types of non-prescription painkillers: acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which includes basically everything that is not acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is the most popular pain-relieving option the world over, and it works by encouraging the brain to stop sending pain signals.
Best for: Headaches and muscle aches
Not great for: Inflammation and joint pain
Watch out for: Taking too much acetaminophen, or mixing acetaminophen and alcohol, can lead to liver damage, and acetominophen is one of the drugs most frequently involved in overdose. Check the bottle to find out the maximum safe dose, and take it seriously.
ASPIRIN (ACETYLSALICYLIC ACID)
Aspirin and other NSAIDs work by decreasing your body’s production of enzymes that create pain-related chemicals. When prescribed by a doctor and taken every day, a small dose of aspirin can help lower the risk of heart attack or stroke for some people.
Best for: Reducing cardiovascular risk
Not great for: Intense pain
Watch out for: Aspirin can be hard on the gut, liver, and kidney. Talk to your doctor to find out if it’s safe for you. Use caution when giving aspirin to children.
ADVIL AND MOTRIN (IBUPROFEN)
Ibuprofen is a pretty versatile drug, with the power to help with a broad range of aches, pains, and other complaints.
Best for: Hangover (there you go!), menstrual cramps, sore or injured muscles, sinus pain, earaches, and toothaches
Not great for: Chronic headache
Watch out for: Ibuprofen carries most of the same risks as aspirin but is often available in higher doses, which can be even harder on your body. It’s also fast-acting and fast-fading, which might lead to more frequent doses.
Naproxen is slow to kick in but longer lasting than ibuprofen, making it a good choice for people with mild-to-moderate chronic pain.
Best for: Inflammation, hangover, lasting headache, arthritis
Not great for: Quick pain relief
Watch out for: Like all NSAIDs, naproxen carries some cardiovascular risk and is associated with stomach distress.
Taking too much of any painkiller is bad for you, and not just in the ways we’ve already discussed. People who rely on over-the-counter medication for daily headaches often find that the medication itself can cause additional headaches, called rebound headaches. If you find yourself taking over-the-counter drugs for the same reason every day, it’s time to talk to your doctor about the underlying issue and other treatment options.