Reviewed by: Frank Garber, Jr., APRN, FNP-C
Aches, pains and fevers can be held at bay thanks to over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin. But which should you take for your symptoms? This primer helps you make sense of the active ingredients and the most common brands containing them.
If you’re simply trying to figure out what type of medication to take, we can help with some general guidance. As always, you should follow the instructions on the bottle of any medication and ask a medical professional if you have questions. If your fever or pain is serious, long-lasting or you can’t take any of these medications because of your medical history, possible drug interactions or other health risks, we’re happy to help you at one of our urgent care clinics.
Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are the most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain and fever. They’re marketed under many names, but the best-known are Tylenol, Advil, Aleve and Bayer. These drugs fall into two different drug categories that work in very different ways: acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Despite some overlapping uses, they are not interchangeable.
Here’s some guidance to help:
Acetaminophen (like Tylenol) reduces pain and fever (arthritis, muscle aches, etc.). It is not a NSAID.
Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) reduces inflammation and swelling at the site of an injury. This is the better choice for quick relief. It is the best choice for young children. It is a NSAID.
Naproxen (Aleve) is good for long-acting relief. It lasts longer in your body but is best for people 12 and up. Because it sticks around, it can be harder on your stomach. If you’re at risk for heart disease, naproxen is a good option for you. It’s a good option for arthritis relief, too. It is a NSAID.
Aspirin (Bayer) used to be the go-to for pain and fever, but there are now better options. It works a lot like ibuprofen but also slows clotting in the bloodstream. That’s why it’s often given related to heart attack or stroke. However, it can irritate the stomach, and children should never take aspirin. It is a NSAID.
If you’re just feeling the effects of a cold or fever, it’s up to you. All four medications will help you feel better. If they don’t, come see us.
If a headache is your only symptom, you can reach for acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin (keeping in mind any limitations we called out already about your health risks, age, etc.). People respond differently to these medications and for headaches, you might find that one works best for you. Technically, they’ll all help, and the variation is largely in the timing of dosing.
If you’re having trouble keeping a fever away for more than three hours, visit your local Coastal Urgent Care. It’s especially important that young children be seen by a medical provider as it can be dangerous to suppress a fever for too long.
Children 6 months and younger should never be given OTC fever reducers and should always be seen by a medical professional if they have a fever. Those 6 to 24 months can take a fever reducer short-term but should come in if the fever lasts more than 24 hours. Those over age 2 can wait up to 3 days before seeing a medical provider. Children of any age should visit an urgent care clinic or their primary care provider if they show signs of dehydration, have a headache, earache, pain with urination, sore throat, diarrhea or vomiting. These are general guidelines, and every child is different. It is always better to be safe than sorry, and that’s exactly why Coastal Urgent Care clinics are ready to help!
For fever reduction, never give a child aspirin: it is linked to Reye’s Syndrome. Our preferred fever reducer for kids is acetaminophen (Tylenol).
If you need help with pain for more than a couple of days, visit the Coastal Urgent Care nearest you. Likewise, if OTC medications aren’t working, that’s a sign that you need a medical professional.
If you have any doubt about your condition or whether a medication is safe for you to take, your local Coastal Urgent Care center can help you feel better. We’ll ask you about your symptoms, their duration, possible causes, talk with you about your health history and review your medications. Based on your specific case, we can then provide safe recommendations.
With extended hours, including weekends and evenings, there’s no need to wait to feel better. Find one of our convenient locations here and check-in online.
All medications include side effects. Read all labels. Also be sure to:
WHEN TO SEEK MEDICAL ADVICE
We know it’s not realistic to see a medical provider for every ache and pain. But you should always seek medical attention in these cases:
WHEN TO CALL 911 or GO TO the ER
If you are in a situation that might be life-threatening, go straight to the emergency room or call 911. Situations like this include: Shortness of breath or breathing problems. Seizures or ‘blackouts’. Sudden vision problems. Confusion or dizziness. Heavy bleeding. Possible breaks that appear to be deformed or blue, or that include bleeding. Serious burns.