Which Over-the-Counter Medication Is Right for You?

When people have ailments that are not serious enough to see the doctor about, many of them head to the pharmacy. But which over-the-counter medication should you choose?

Dr. Marie Savard said there are two categories that consumers should be aware of to help them decide: acetaminophens and nonsteroidal or anti-inflammatories.


"[Acetaminophens] have one of the longest track records of safety if you take them as directed," Savard said. Acetaminophens, such as Tylenol, work by focusing on your brain to reduce the perception of pain, Savard said.

VIDEO: Dr. Marie Savard explains how to select and use popular pain medications.Play

If you have a stress-related headache, not a migraine, then an extra-strength acetaminophen is probably best, Savard said.

Savard cautioned that if people take acetaminophen for too long, they run the risk of higher blood pressure or damage to their liver.

"People who have liver disease or people drinking three or more drinks per day really either need to not take it at all or talk to their doctor about it," Savard said.

This month's Journal of the American Medical Association also found that middle-aged men who overuse acetaminophen are at a higher risk for hearing loss, Savard said. But she cautioned that there may not be a direct link.

"They are not advocating that we take it long term," Savard said. "But the average patient doesn't hear that part of the message. They have chronic pain. They are going to take it regularly."

Click here to read a statement from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

Nonsteroidal, Anti-Inflammatories

The second group is nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatories, otherwise known as n-saids. They include Motrin, Advil and Aleve.

The group works by targeting the area where the pain originates. For example, if you have a backache, then the medication will help relieve the pain by diminishing the inflammation in your back, Savard said.

"I think of them as a little bit stronger [than acetaminophens]," Savard said.

Or if you have a migraine, then you want to use an n-said instead of an anti-inflammatory because it will target the pain, Savard said.

But, Savard warned, you should not use these medications for an extended period of time because overuse could eat away at the lining of your stomach and cause ulcers.

Overuse can cause high blood pressure, fluid retention and affect your kidneys, Savard said.

For those over 65 years old, Savard recommended using acetaminophens instead.

Click here to read a statement from Bayer.


Although aspirin is a kind of n-said because it blocks inflammation, it also stands in its own group because it thins blood, Savard said. This is why people take it in low doses to avoid heart attacks and strokes.

Be aware, however, that aspirin can eat away at your stomach lining even more than the other n-saids, Savard said.

If you find that you have been taking over-the-counter medications for more than three or four days at a time, then you should address the problem with your physician, Savard said.

Once you meet with your physician, try to identify what the underlying problem is because over-the-counter medications are not meant to be used indefinitely, Savard said.

"Use these pills as directed," Savard said. "They have great benefits, but also risks as well."

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