Pain – it’s something everyone experiences. According to Pain Australia, it’s the most common reason for people to seek medical help.
Often though, mild pain will have us reaching into the medicine cabinet before reaching for the phone to call the doctor. Two over-the-counter painkillers found in many medicine cabinets are ibuprofen and paracetamol.
Apart from price, these two painkillers have several important differences, including how they work to relieve pain, and their safety.
Here’s a guide to the essentials for choosing an over-the-counter painkiller.
Differences between paracetamol and ibuprofen
Paracetamol is a simple analgesic used to treat mild to moderate pain, explains consultant pharmacist Neil Petrie. It also has antipyretic (fever-reducing) effects, and is available as a single ingredient, or in combination with other analgesic medicines.
Ibuprofen, however, belongs to the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory group of medications.
“Some [painkillers] such as ibuprofen and diclofenac are available without a prescription, while others are only available with a prescription from a doctor,” Petrie says. “In addition to their analgesic properties, they also treat pain conditions associated with inflammation. These medicines also have antipyretic properties.”
Why choose one over the other?
Petrie recommends paracetamol as the first choice for simple, non-inflammatory pain. “It is well-tolerated and effective for many minor pain conditions. There are very few contraindications for its use.”
He says ibuprofen may be considered instead of – or in addition to – paracetamol, if there is an inflammatory component to your pain, or if paracetamol alone has not been effective.
Caution is needed, however, because “Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can worsen some medical conditions and interact with some other medicines.”
Petrie says you should always seek advice from your pharmacist when taking any non-prescribed medicine. This will help ensure it will not interfere with other medicines you are taking, or any medical conditions you may have.
Supermarket or pharmacy?
Unlike pharmacists, supermarkets are not able to provide information on safety of medicines. So Petrie suggests buying analgesics at the pharmacy because you can get expert advice.
He recommends taking note of the active ingredient in each medicine you are taking, to help avoid doubling up on medicines. You should also consider “non-medicine approaches to managing symptoms for both treatment and prevention of pain,” he says.
Petrie emphasises that if pain is ongoing and not relieved by simple analgesics, you should seek advice from your doctor.