HEALTHY LIVING

Everything You Should Know About Picking The Right Over-The-Counter Painkiller

03/10/2015 08:35 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015
Stigur Karlsson via Getty Images

Just about anyone who has ever had a headache or some knee pain has probably wondered: "How can I make this go away?"

Over-the-counter pain relievers are a pretty popular choice. In any given week, about 20 percent of the American population will use an OTC painkiller, according to a report from the American College of Preventive Medicine. And when asked to reflect over the last year, 87 percent of women and 80 percent of men say they have used such a medication.

OTC pain meds fall into two major categories: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) and acetaminophen. Both are non-opioid analgesics, meaning they reduce pain but aren't part of the family of drugs known as opioids. Opioids, powerful substances such as morphine, oxycodone and codeine, are classified as narcotics and require a prescription.

While we feel pain local to an injury or site of a particular ache, it's important to remember that pain is essentially an electrical signal sent to the brain. Acetaminophen seems to lessen the intensity of pain signals in the areas of the brain that process them. But in addition to these electrical messages, our bodies also create physical symptoms. Inflammation -- pain, swelling, redness -- is caused by prostaglandins, a ground of hormone-like substances, which NSAIDs can help control.

Both have their risks: Taking too much acetaminophen has been linked to liver problems, while taking too much of an NSAID has been linked to stomach problems and ulcers.

Different types of pain respond better to different types of painkillers, and because both are highly individual, what works best for someone else may not work best for you. As a general rule, you should not take a pain reliever if you already take any other products containing pain-relieving ingredients without consulting a medical professional. Do not take a pain reliever that contains any ingredients you know you are allergic to. And of course, discuss your personal medical history with a doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicine, especially if you take any other medications.

But to give you a better sense of what's behind the various boxes and bottles on your drugstore shelf, here are some of the basic differences (and, frankly, similarities) between some of the most popular OTC pain meds on the market.

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Photo: advilaide.com
Do not use Advil if you have a stomach ulcer, are in the last three months of pregnancy or have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it. Talk to your doctor before use if you have kidney disease, liver cirrhosis or heartburn or are pregnant or breast-feeding.

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Photo: alevepro.com
Do not use Aleve if you are in the last three months of pregnancy, have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it or have a stomach ulcer. Talk to your doctor before use if you are pregnant or breast-feeding or if you have high blood pressure.

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Photo: aspirin.com
Do not take aspirin if you are in the last three months of pregnancy. Talk to your doctor before use if you are pregnant or taking a blood-thinning medication or medication for diabetes, gout or arthritis.

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Photo: Facebook: Excedrin
Do not use Excedrin if you have or are recovering from the chicken pox or flu-like symptoms, are in the last three months of pregnancy or have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it. Talk to your doctor before use if you have a stomach ulcer, liver disease, heartburn, high blood pressure, liver cirrhoses, heart disease, kidney disease or asthma. Talk to your doctor if you have the worst headache of your life or a headache different from your usual headaches or you are vomiting with a migraine.

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Photo: Midol.com
Do not take Midol if you have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it. Talk to your doctor before use if you have liver disease, glaucoma, a chronic breathing problem, are taking sedatives or are pregnant.

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Photo: Motrin.com
Do not use Motrin if you have a stomach ulcer, are in the last three months of pregnancy or have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it. Talk to your doctor before use if you have kidney disease, liver cirrhosis or heartburn or are pregnant or breast-feeding.

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Photo: Facebook: Tylenol
Do not use Tylenol if you have three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using it. Talk to your doctor before use if you have liver disease, take a blood-thinning drug or are pregnant.

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