Ibuprofen vs. Acetaminophen – Which pain reliever should I choose?

Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2024
Cristy Gaddy, PharmD, BCPS
Clinical Pharmacist Specialist

When you’re feeling under the weather or experiencing pain, reaching for a pain reliever is often your first step in finding relief. Two common, over-the-counter (OTC) medications you may try are ibuprofen and acetaminophen. And while they might look similar, they have some important differences that could affect how your pain is managed. 

How do they work differently?

Let’s start by breaking down what each medication is and how they work. Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which means it works by reducing inflammation in the body. It’s effective at relieving pain, reducing fever and easing swelling. Acetaminophen, on the other hand, is not an NSAID. Instead, it works by blocking pain signals in the brain, making it an effective pain reliever and fever reducer.

One of the key differences between these medications is their potential side effects. Ibuprofen, while effective, may cause irritation to the stomach lining, potentially leading to stomach ulcers and bleeding. High doses or prolonged use can increase this risk. Additionally, ibuprofen can impact kidney function and elevate blood pressure. For acetaminophen, it carries a risk of liver damage, especially when taken in excess amounts. This is why it is important to stick to the recommended dosage.

When do I use Acetominophen versus Ibuprofen?

Now, let’s talk about what each medication is best used for treating. Ibuprofen shines in reducing inflammation, making it ideal for conditions such as arthritis, muscle strains and menstrual cramps. It’s also a trusted ally in combating headaches, toothaches and minor aches and pains. 

Acetaminophen is often preferred for relieving pain and fever associated with conditions like headaches, toothaches and colds. Its gentle action on the stomach makes it a safer option for those with stomach problems or a history of ulcers. However, since acetaminophen lacks anti-inflammatory properties, it may not be as effective for conditions where inflammation is a key component.

What else should I consider before taking an over-the-counter pain reliever?

In addition to considering the differences between ibuprofen and acetaminophen, it’s also important to think about your individual health needs and any other medications you may be taking. Some people may have allergies or sensitivities to certain medications, so it’s important to read labels carefully and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions or concerns.

At the end of the day, both ibuprofen and acetaminophen are effective pain relievers with their own unique benefits and potential side effects. Ibuprofen excels in addressing inflammation-related conditions, while acetaminophen is preferable for pain and fever without inflammation. By understanding the differences between these medications and talking to your healthcare provider, you can make informed decisions regarding your pain-management regimen.

If you’re looking for a new doctor, Northeast Georgia Physicians Group has many who can fit your needs. Call to schedule an appointment today, or book your appointment online.