You’ve got a headache. Or you twisted your ankle. Maybe you’re feverish. What do you do?

Different pains and ailments require different treatments. It’s always better to try non-drug alternatives first (eg. ice for an inflamed joint) but there are times when an over-the-counter remedy is necessary.

However, choosing the right painkiller off the shelf can be a headache-inspiring event of it’s own. There are three primary products for the prevention and treatment of pain and other related conditions: aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. While they have similarities, picking the wrong one may delay or hamper your recovery or even create new problems.


An anti-inflammatory drug as well as painkiller, aspirin reduces swelling so the pain is less likely to recur when the analgesic properties of the drug wear off. It is also an anti-coagulant which means it helps to keep the blood thin enough so as not to clot. People who have a history/risk of heart attack or stroke are often advised by their doctor to take daily aspirin as a preventative measure. However, aspirin can cause gastrointestinal discomfort if taken in large enough doses and has also been shown to cause ringing in the ears for some. In children and adolescents it can cause Reye’s Syndrome if taken while infected with a virus such as chicken pox or influenza.


This drug is used for the relief of fever as well as aches and pains. It is popular because it is less likely to cause stomach upset than aspirin. However, it is not an anti-inflammatory so if pain is associated with inflammation like arthritis, acetaminophen will lessen the pain but have no effect on any underlying inflammation, redness or swelling of the joint.

Acetaminophen began as a children’s medication and is still the preferred pain reliever for children because of the connection between Reye’s Syndrome and aspirin. It is metabolized by the liver and can cause liver damage if combined with alcohol.


Ibuprofen is twice as potent as aspirin as an anti-inflammatory. It is an effective and well-tolerated analgesic for general use. It can provide relief from headaches, migraine, backache, dental pain, muscular pain, menstrual pain and cold/flu symptoms. Ibuprofen is also effective at reducing fever. It has the potential to cause stomach upset but is less irritating for some than aspirin.


Before taking any medication you should read product labels carefully. If you’re still confused as to which choice is best for your situation, don’t hesitate to consult with a health care professional, physician or pharmacist before proceeding.

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