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Over The Counter Pain Medication: How To Choose The Right Drugs

Posted on November 1, 2021 by Tracey Bankos

With the latest front-page news about the possible hazards of pain medications, you may be taking a look at your over-the-counter (or OTC) pain medications with a wary eye. While all drugs, including those you do not need a prescription for, can be dangerous, some basic knowledge can help you avoid the pitfalls for the pain relief you require.

Types of OTC pain medication:

The pain-relief aisle of any drug store can make it look like there is an endless number of pain-relief medications. However there are really only three types. Each type works in a different way and can cause various kinds of problems.

- Aspirin: Aspirin blocks the activity of pain hormones called prostaglandins, which would otherwise send pain information to your brain. In addition, by blocking prostaglandins you decrease the pain and distress of inflammation (swelling and heat indicating immune function).

- Acetaminophen: Acetaminophen is found in drugs like Tylenol, as well as some generic OTC medications and in pharmaceutical pain-relief solutions. Acetaminophen travels through your bloodstream to the brain, reducing pain-related brain activity and strain. Because it does not work through the hormonal system, it does not do as good a job of reducing swelling and inflammation as the other two kinds of pain medication.

- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories: These are sometimes called NSAIDs (pronounced N-Saidz). This is not a single chemical, such as acetaminophen, but a group of chemicals including aspirin, naproxen and ketoprofen, all of which block the production of prostaglandins, and consequently pain and swelling. A range of NSAIDs are available over-the-counter, including brands such as Aleve, Ibuprofen (generic) and Motrin; some newer NSAIDs, like Celebrex and Vioxx, need a prescription.

How To Take Aspirin Safely

In addition to preventing pain signals, aspirin blocks the production of blood clots. Strokes can be caused by blood clots blocking the brain's blood vessels and aspirin lowers the chance that such clots will form, so physicians will sometimes recommend a low dose of daily aspirin to prevent strokes from high-risk patients.

But, this also means that it is harder to stop bleeding if you are taking aspirin. Individuals that are already on blood thinners (such as Coumadin) shouldn't take. Similarly, pregnant women have an increased risk of bleeding if they take aspirin, so in case you want pain relief while pregnant, speak with your healthcare worker to get a much better options.

Aspirin can quickly lead to ulcer formation and potentially-dangerous gastric (stomach) bleeding. Enteric coating reduces the chance of harm, but even so, aspirin shouldn't be taken for extended periods of time without consulting a physician.

Some people are allergic to aspirin, and may experience a variety of symptoms (potentially serious) on taking it. If you are allergic to aspirin, you should not take aspirin or NSAIDs without consulting a physician.

Lastly, kids and adolescents with chicken pox, flu, or other viral disease shouldn't be given aspirin (even children's aspirin) without first consulting a physician, as the combination of certain illnesses and aspirin can lead to a potentially fatal complication called Reye's syndrome.

How To Take Acetaminophen Safely:

Acetaminophen, taken in large doses or over long intervals, can cause liver damage and, eventually, liver failure. If you believe you may have taken too much, call a healthcare provider or poison control center right away.

Alcohol consumption can magnify the effect of acetaminophen on the liver. If you regularly have three or more alcoholic beverages a day, you should consult your healthcare provider before taking acetaminophen (or any other pain reliever).

Because of the potential for overdose, children shouldn't be given"extra strength" acetaminophen products. Regular strength ones should be provided at the stated doses for kids or after speaking with a healthcare professional or pharmacist.

How To Take Over The Counter NSAIDs Safely:

NSAIDs slightly increase the chance of bleeding. People on blood thinners, pregnant or nursing women, and individuals at risk for internal bleeding shouldn't take these products. They can also affect your liver's function and health and lead to gastrointestinal bleeding.

To be able to avoid these effects, you should not take more than one NSAID at a time or an NSAID with aspirin without first consulting a physician. If you are taking a multi-drug medication (for example, pills for relief of menstrual symptoms may consist of several unique medications), make sure that it doesn't already contain an NSAID if you are taking an NSAID separately. Lastly, pregnant and nursing women should speak with their healthcare provider before using an OTC NSAID.

Other Things To Think About:

If you end up taking any OTC pain reliever during a long time period (several weeks), you should see your healthcare provider. The pain may indicate a problem that has to be dealt with rather than masked, and there may be treatment that will take care of the issue, rather than merely masking the indicators.