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What is the difference between over-the-counter pain relievers?

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers belong to one of two classes: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen, and acetaminophen.


Members of both classes of OTC pain relievers reduce pain and fever; however, NSAIDs reduce inflammation, too. Inflammation is the body's response to injury and infection; signs include pain, swelling, redness and increased warmth in the affected area.

One type of NSAID, aspirin, has health benefits beyond pain and inflammation reduction. Taking a daily low dose of aspirin may reduce the risk of heart attack, and possibly stroke, in susceptible individuals. However, aspirin is not advised for people with certain medical conditions or for people under the age of 19.

Depending on your particular needs, certain pain relievers may treat your symptoms more effectively than others. For example, if you have a sprained ankle, you may decide to take an NSAID, because these medications not only relieve pain but also reduce inflammation as well. Or, if you have a personal risk of gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers, you may choose to take acetaminophen; gastrointestinal bleeding risks are increased with NSAID use, but not with acetaminophen use.

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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.