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Your Guide to Over-the-Counter Pain Relief

September is Pain Awareness Month. For many of us, over-the-counter pain medications are essential for headaches, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle strains, and joint pain. Each drug has its benefits and drawbacks, some of which can be serious. Review the facts about each of the commonly available drugs side-by-side in the grid below to find your go-to pain reliever.

CAUTION: 

  • Those at risk for heart, liver, or kidney disease should discuss their over-the-counter pain relief choice with their doctor before taking any. 
  • Read the labels carefully before taking pain relievers with other medications, especially cold and flu medicines. More than 600 medicines include acetaminophen, for instance. Taking it with other medications that include acetaminophen can lead to a dangerous double dose. 
  • Only kid-versions of the adult medications below should be given to kids, and aspirin should not be given to kids at all. It can cause a rare condition that affects the brain and liver. 

If you find that you are in need of over-the-counter pain relief for more than 10 days in a row, you should consult your doctor for a treatment that can address the source of the pain. Treatment options exist for most of the conditions people use pain relievers to manage, including headaches, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle strains, and joint pain. Talk to your doctor about what treatment options might be right for you. 

Bob Schwartz, MD, is a family medicine physician at SVMC Northshire Campus and associate medical director of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians.

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