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How to Take Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers Safely

By on 09/30/2021

After a long day of work, you are looking forward to a good night’s sleep, but that migraine you’ve been nursing for the past few days seems to have other plans.

If your instinct is to reach out for painkillers, you certainly wouldn’t be the first. But how sure are you that the pill you’re taking will be both safe and effective in managing that migraine?

In honor of Pain Awareness Month, Einstein medical professionals offer advice on how to choose an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication and take it safely. When in doubt, be sure to discuss medicinal use with your pharmacist or primary care doctor.

Pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) generally are safe and useful for managing various kinds of pain, including headaches, arthritis, muscle aches and stomachaches.

But precautions are necessary to take all medications safely, especially if you have certain medical conditions.

No Prescription, But Some Risk

“There’s a big presumption that because it’s not a prescription it’s OK for me and I can take it,” says Christopher Scaven, DO, a family medicine doctor and Medical Director of Einstein Community Health Associates in Philadelphia. “That is not always the case.”

He and David Mihalic, PharmD, Director of Pharmacy Services at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, recommend telling your doctor about all medications you are taking, including OTC drugs and supplements.

“Treatment needs to be tailored to the individual’s medical history and what drugs they’re currently on,” Dr. Scaven says. “There may be potential interactions.”

There are two types of OTC pain pills: acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which include ibuprofen and naproxen. While both types are capable of decreasing body temperature and pain, only NSAIDS also reduce inflammation.

Dr. Mihalic and Dr. Scaven offer the following advice about maximum adult doses of over-the-counter pain relievers and how to take them safely. Dosing for children is based on weight. Ask your child’s pediatrician about what dose and schedule is safe for your child.

Taking the Right Dose

Frequently Asked Questions

Take Precautions

Although you can buy these pain relievers over-the-counter, it’s best to consult a primary care provider to ensure that the medications are safe for you, based on your prior conditions, and that you’re taking them safely.

If your pain seems to require taking medications more often than the label says is safe, contact your doctor to figure out what may be going on.

Please consult a pharmacist or your primary care doctor if you have any questions about how safe a medication is or if it’s right for you. Make sure to read all labels and warnings. If pain is individualized, so is pain relief.

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Perspectives highlights the expertise and services provided by the physicians, specialists, nurses and other healthcare providers at Einstein Healthcare Network. Through this blog, we share information about new treatments and technologies, top-tier clinical teams and the day-to-day interactions that reinforce our commitment to delivering quality care with compassion. Here, you will also find practical advice for championing your health and wellness. The Einstein Healthcare Network "Terms of Use" apply to all content on this blog.