When should I take acetaminophen (Tylenol)?

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine

Keep acetaminophen (Tylenol) in your medicine cabinet for fever or pain relief, especially when used in combination with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other NSAIDs. If you have stomach or kidney issues, acetaminophen may be your pain reliever of choice.

In general, ibuprofen seems to work better to lower high fevers than acetaminophen. There is person-to-person variability regarding whether acetaminophen or NSAIDs like ibuprofen work better for other aches and pains. Studies show acetaminophen is equally effective to NSAIDs in relieving arthritis pain, despite the fact that acetaminophen has no anti-inflammatory effects.

Acetaminophen has potential to harm the liver, so patients with chronic liver disease or alcoholism should avoid it completely.
You may have heard that Tylenol is the number one pain reliever used in hospitals, and that may be true. Acetaminophen is very easy on the stomach, as opposed to NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) and probably more importantly, Tylenol does not have the potential to increase bleeding (again, as compared with the NSAIDs, which do have that potential). Therefore, people in hospitals who are postoperative or have nausea are going to do better with Tylenol.

Acetaminophen may be used as an adjunct to ibuprofen. They work on different pain pathways and have different side effect profiles, so they often are complementary. If you have a high fever and took ibuprofen only a couple hours ago, yet you are spiking again, reach for the Tylenol. The same goes for headaches or other pains.

Additionally, many people find that combining an acetaminophen together with an ibuprofen is more effective for pain relief than taking a full dose of either drug.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.