Types of OTC Analgesic Drugs

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
When you're in pain, nothing matters except this: how to make the pain stop. In this lesson, learn the purposes and side effects of various types of over-the-counter pain medications. Then the next time you're hurting, you'll know which one to buy!

No Pain, No Gain

We've all heard the saying 'No Pain, No Gain.' But if you've ever stubbed your toe or had a headache then you know there is no greater gain at times, then stopping the pain! Every day millions of dollars are spent on medications aimed at alleviating pain, and many of these are non-prescription products that can be bought at a pharmacy.

Basically there are two major groups of analgesics or pain-relief medications available for purchase over-the-counter (OTC):

  1. Acetaminophen
  2. Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs

Other kinds of pain medications exist, but require a prescription to obtain.


Acetaminophen, known also by the brand name Tylenol, became available in the 1950s and is still one of the most commonly used pain medications. It is very effective at reducing fevers and alleviating headaches, as well as other aches and pains. However, it does not reduce inflammation. Also, it is safe for children to take when the dosing is followed properly.

Unfortunately, many adults assume that if it is safe for children, then it is safe to consume in any amount. This simply is not true. Acetaminophen is eliminated from the body through the liver. Therefore, large doses of acetaminophen can lead to liver toxicity. Adults who take too much acetaminophen are susceptible to significant liver damage.

In some instances, it is not the person's fault that too much acetaminophen is consumed. How so? Well, many products are hiding acetaminophen in them! Most OTC multi-symptom cold medications and many prescription pain medications contain some amount of acetaminophen. People are unaware of this and take additional acetaminophen, which in most cases is harmful instead of helpful.

Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs: Similarities

The other major classification of OTC pain medication is Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs. That is quite a mouthful, so this group is commonly referred to by the acronym NSAIDs. The three most common types of NSAIDS are:

  1. Aspirin - Brand names: Ecotrin, Bayer
  2. Ibuprofen - Brand names: Advil, Motrin
  3. Naproxen - Brand name: Aleve

All of these drugs are in the same class and, therefore, have many similarities. NSAIDs work to reduce pain and fever. However, unlike acetaminophen, these drugs also work to decrease inflammation (hence the anti-inflammatory part of their ridiculously long classification). So, these medications are more effective at decreasing the pain associated with inflammation, such as with joint or muscle pain, toothaches, or menstrual cramping.

Also, all NSAIDs have the undesirable side effect of causing stomach upset, which prevents many people from taking them. You may be thinking,' Stomach upset, that's no big deal!' But in fact, it can be a very big deal, especially for people who have history of stomach problems. Not only can intense nausea or stomach pain happen, but also stomach bleeding can occur.

NSAIDS: Differences

Drug manufacturers would stop making aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen if they were all exactly identical! So let's briefly review how they are different.

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