Written By: Malissa Carroll, Web Content Specialist

Each day, millions of people visit their local pharmacy to purchase over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers to help alleviate a wide range of minor aches and pains. Because these medications are available for purchase without a prescription, many people assume that they are risk-free, and safe to use without worry. However, OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen contain potent compounds that can lead to a number of adverse effects when not used correctly. In fact, researchers have long established that consuming more than the recommended amount of acetaminophen can lead to liver damage, and another recent study from researchers in Denmark found that ibuprofen was associated with a 31 percent increased risk for heart attack.

Although these findings can be frightening at first glance, there is no need for patients to abandon their go-to pain reliever. Below, Cherokee Layson-Wolf, PharmD, BCACP, FAPhA, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice Science (PPS) and associate dean for student affairs at the School of Pharmacy, answers some frequently asked questions about OTC pain relievers and offers guidance to help ensure their appropriate use.

What problems can OTC pain relievers help relieve?

OTC pain relievers can help relieve minor aches and pains, such as muscle soreness, joint pain, and some headaches, and fever. However, the use of OTC pain relievers for these issues should be short term.

How can patients determine which OTC pain reliever is best for them?

Patients should talk with their pharmacist, physician, or other health care provider to discuss which OTC pain reliever is safest for their use. These health care professionals can offer personalized recommendations that take into consideration the patient’s other health conditions and medications.

How can patients ensure that they are using OTC pain relievers safely and correctly?

Patients should carefully read product labels and be sure to take only the recommended dose as indicated on the label. In addition, patients should make sure that they inform all of their health care providers that they are using these products, so that they can be included on their medication lists.  Many over-the-counter combination products for cough, cold, and sleep contain the same ingredients found in OTC pain relievers, so some patients might discover that they are unintentionally taking more medication than recommended.

What are some common side effects associated with OTC pain relievers?

Most patients who take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin do not experience side effects, but those who do might experience nausea and stomach pain. Taking these medications with food can help minimize nausea. However, patients should keep in mind that dangerous side effects could be associated with all OTC medicines, so it’s best to consult with a pharmacist or other health care provider for guidance about which medication is best to take for their unique circumstances.

Can OTC pain relievers be taken safely with patients’ other medications?

Patients should speak with their pharmacist or other health care provider about whether they can safely take OTC pain relievers with their other medications. Each person is likely to have different health conditions and/or take different medications that might affect the safety and effectiveness of OTC pain relievers.

What is the maximum length of time that patients should use OTC pain relievers?

Unless otherwise directed by a health care provider, OTC pain relievers should not be used longer than seven days. If pain or fever persists or is not relieved at the recommended dose on the packaging, patients should visit their health care provider.

Do you have any additional advice for patients who might be thinking about using OTC pain relievers?

Even though some pain relievers are available over-the-counter, they are still medicines and we need to ensure that we are using them safely. OTC pain relievers can be effective for aches and pains, and often, stronger pain medications may not be needed. Talking with your pharmacist or other health care provider can help ensure that you find the best pain reliever for your needs.

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