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Pain Management

Over-the-counter pain relief: What you need to know

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

Our Superintendent Pharmacist, Phil Day discusses managing pain with over the counter painkillers and the best to take for the kind of pain you’re experiencing. Ibuprofen, paracetamol, and aspirin are the three main painkillers that you can buy without a prescription and they all reduce pain and fever.


Paracetamol is generally safe and very well tolerated, and is used for most types of pain, including colds and flu, sore throats, headaches, and toothache. As well as tablets or capsules, it can be given as a liquid for children as young as 3 months old. It’s gentle on the stomach and clashes with very few other medicines. However, it’s very important not to exceed the recommended dosage, or take multiple paracetamol-containing medicines at the same time without care, as it can be toxic to the liver in the event of even a small overdose. 

Ibuprofen and Aspirin

Ibuprofen and aspirin have an additional anti-inflammatory effect, making them particularly suitable for the relief of pain where there is also inflammation, such as joint and muscle pains, and period pain. However, these shouldn’t be taken by people with asthma, as they can trigger the symptoms; and they should be taken with or after food, as they can irritate the stomach. They also shouldn’t be taken by anyone with liver or kidney problems.

Ibuprofen is generally considered to be safer and more effective than aspirin for general pain relief, and it irritates the stomach less. Like paracetamol, ibuprofen is available in tablets and capsules, and a liquid for children, and also as a rub-in gel to relieve joint and muscle pain. It’s important to note that aspirin is not suitable for children – it shouldn’t be given to anyone under 16 unless prescribed by a doctor.

Sometimes these painkillers are included in branded products that are directed towards a particular type of pain – such as “cold and flu tablets”, or “migraine pain tablets”. They may be combined with decongestants or other medicines. Usually the most appropriate painkiller for that type of pain will be included in the product.

Whichever painkiller you choose, read the box and the leaflet carefully, use it for the shortest time necessary to relieve the pain, and talk to your pharmacist or GP if the symptoms persist – and if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or taking any other medicines.

Aspirin is perhaps something that the older generation will think of as a go-to painkiller. Ibuprofen has only been available without prescription since 1983. Aspirin, in a very low dose, has great benefits as an anti-platelet drug (to prevent heart disease and stroke). But as a painkiller, ibuprofen is more effective, and is less likely to irritate the stomach.