The Pros and Cons of Over the Counter Pain Medication

In our everyday lives, we’re faced with a lot of choices and alternatives:

The blue pantsuit, or the black pinstripe?

Wheat bread or white?

SPF 30 or SPF 45?

As if we don’t have enough decisions to make, we’re also faced with a dilemma when opening our medicine cabinet.

If you’re like most Americans, your medicine cabinet is filled with dozens of bottles, boxes, and droppers, each promising relief.

There are many factors to consider before you make your selection. Over the counter treatments, like every choice in life, have pros and cons. This means that your decision to take a particular over the counter pain medication depends on many things.

These factors include things such as your symptoms (e.g. swelling,) age, heart health, and how much alcohol you drink (and how often.)

Here, we discuss the pros and cons of common over the counter medicines. This will help you make the best decision for you and your loved ones.

We’ll also discuss less common over the counter pain medication options, and whether it’s the right answer for you.

No two over the counter pain medication choices are alike

Advil, Aleve, Aspirin: it’s all the same, right?


While these three over the counter pain medication options are all classified at NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,) their chemical makeups are very different – and these chemicals, of course, impact your body in different ways that we’ve discussed below.

Whether generic or name-brand, before you snap open that bottle, it’s important that you understand exactly what you’re taking.

All NSAIDs reduce pain from headaches, arthritis, and menstrual cramps as well as reduce swelling and lower fever. This makes them very versatile, as they are used for everything from minor sports injuries to toothaches.

But NSAIDs can also cause gastrointestinal issues (like ulcers) particularly in those over 65, and it can also raise blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke or heart disease.

NSAIDs should also not be given to children.

So let’s break it down

Aspirin, one of the cheapest and oldest pain relievers out there, may reduce the risk of heart attacks and blood clots. Many at-risk consumers take a “baby aspirin” once per day to stay on top of their heart health. Check with your doctor first.

But Aspirin is also one of the NSAIDs most likely to cause an upset stomach. Consider this if you’ve got a sensitive tummy.

A key benefit to Aleve is that it’s long-lasting. Typical directions indicate that users should take one every 8-12 hours, instead of every 4-6 hours as recommended for other NSAIDs and other over the counter pain medication options.

This may be beneficial if you’ve got a long day ahead. Who has time for pain, anyway?

And Advil has its own benefits: it’s actually easier on the stomach than aspirin. This means it can be a better choice for those with indigestion and heartburn.

In a league of its own

We haven’t even mentioned Tylenol yet, but that’s because it’s not a NSAID. And because of this, Tylenol – also known as acetaminophen – doesn’t reduce swelling. Another “con” is that it may also cause liver damage if you drink alcohol.

But if a sore throat, headache, or menstrual cramps are the cause of your pain, then Tylenol may be a great pick. It’s easier on the stomach than NSAIDs and safer for children or those with bleeding disorders.

Tylenol is present in hundreds of over the counter pain medication products because it’s so effective at pain reduction and lowering fevers.

All of the options above – whether NSAID or not – are offered in extra strength or slow-release capsules.

Do your homework

As you look through the medicine aisle at your drugstore, turn over the boxes and bottles to compare milligrams per pill. Familiarize yourself with the other active ingredients in each bottle.

Just because Dayquil cold medicine contains acetaminophen doesn’t mean you should take it for a headache. There are other ingredients in Dayquil that you wouldn’t need in this case.

But, on the flip side, if you have a cold and your main symptom is a headache, you can by all means take a Tylenol.

Confusing, right? Understanding over the counter medication labels will help you make the right pick.

Also: understanding labels is key to taking the right amount. No matter the benefits of each medication, any medication can cause serious side effects if you take more than you should.

Always check the expiration date on the medications (over the counter or prescription) you take. Meds may deteriorate over time, making expired medicine less effective – or even dangerous.

Less common uses for over the counter treatments

There are many other over the counter medications for other symptoms not listed above.

Allergies, motion sickness, sleep aids, and constipation: these are a few of the other symptoms experienced by everyday consumers turning to over the counter medication.

The same rules apply here: understand what’s in the medication. Read the labels explaining dosage instructions and risk factors.

For example, most over the counter treatments for acne suggest less sun exposure during usage.

And many medications, like urinary tract pain relief, suggest drinking plenty of water.

Over the counter medication isn’t always your best bet

There are some considerations when deciding whether to take any over the counter medication at all.

These include the level of your pain and how long you’ve had symptoms. In most cases, symptoms lasting longer than you’re used to – for example, a three-day headache – probably warrant a call to your doctor.

And if you just think you have an achy knee but you aren’t quite sure, hold off a bit on reaching into the medicine cabinet. You may want to first try the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method.

Other natural alternatives, like arnica oil, may also prove beneficial.

No matter which over the counter medication you find works best for you and your family, remember to always follow the guidance above. Be informed about what you’re taking.

And remember that over the counter medications don’t solve the underlying problem. They just help you get through the discomfort.

If you’re worried about recurring or chronic symptoms, we suggest calling your doctor to discuss possible causes of your symptoms.

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