How to Safely Use Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers
Everyone feels pain at some point in their life. Whether it’s a headache, joint pain, muscle aches or perhaps back pain, the one thing everybody wants is for the pain to go away quickly!
There are many simple things you can do to ease your pain. One of the most effective ways is to take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. Also known as analgesics, these can help to relieve mild-to-moderate pain, and can also reduce a fever.1 But, like all medications, it’s important to know how to take analgesics correctly so you get maximum pain relief, while helping to avoid any unwanted effects.
Types of pain reliever
Millions of people around the world take OTC analgesics every day. When they’re taken correctly, they are generally safe and effective in relieving mild-to-moderate aches and pains.2 Although you can find many different pain relieving products on the shelves of the pharmacy or drugstore, they are usually either:
- topical – which means you apply it directly to your skin, or
- oral – which means you either swallow a tablet or capsule, or dissolve a tablet in water before drinking.
The article Choosing the Right Pain Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever provides more information about OTC analgesic options.
Tips to use pain relievers safely
To make sure you use oral and topical pain relievers properly, here are some tips to remember.
Always read the label. Make sure you carefully read the label of any medication before you take it.3 That way you’ll know what medicine is in the product, how you should use it (if it’s topical you don’t want to swallow it!), and how much, when and how often you can take or use it. Not all pain relievers are suitable for everyone and the label will help you to determine if it’s okay for you to use the product.
Know when to take the medication. In addition to knowing how often you are able to use a pain reliever, it’s important to know that some oral analgesics should be taken with or after food, as they can upset your stomach.1
Check to ensure the pain reliever is right for you.3 If you are a certain age, or you have other medical problems, such as heart disease, some pain relievers may not be suitable for you. For more information on the differences between oral analgesic ingredients and who needs to take special care when using them, read the article Choosing the Right Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever. If you’re still concerned, speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
Take care if you’re taking other medications. Oral pain relievers can interact with other medications, which may change the effect of one or both drugs, or lead to an unwanted reaction. There are different types of analgesics available and these can interact with different kinds of other medications. So, if you are taking other prescription or over-the-counter medications, or dietary supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which pain reliever is right for you.
Don’t take more than the recommended dose.3 The product label on your medication will tell you what dose of pain reliever to use and how often you can take it in a day. Make sure you don’t use any more than is recommended, as this can make you more likely to have an adverse reaction to your medication. If you feel you need more pain relief, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
Don’t take two different products with the same active ingredient.3 There are many different pain relief products available and many contain the same type of analgesic ingredient. For example, if you are taking a pain reliever but also want to use a cold or flu product, you need to take care as these often contain analgesics too. If you don’t realize this and take two or more medications with the same type of active ingredient, this can make you more likely to have an adverse reaction. Check with your doctor or pharmacist for advice on taking different products together.
Don’t use analgesics for longer than you should. Most OTC analgesics are used to relieve pain that lasts for a few days at a time and the product label will tell you how long you can use the product.3 If you have a long-term (chronic) pain problem, you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the right options for you.
Be aware of possible drug allergies. Some people may be extremely sensitive to the active ingredients in some medications. This can cause a severe allergic reaction, including coughing, swelling of the lips, tongue or face, itchy skin, or hives. If you have a drug allergy, or think you may be allergic to an ingredient in any type of pain reliever, even prescription, speak to your doctor or pharmacist before using an OTC analgesic. Allergic symptoms for which you should seek medical attention include: 4
- airway problems: throat and tongue swelling, hoarse voice, a high-pitched sound when you breathe in
- breathing problems: shortness of breath and wheezing
- circulation problems: fast pulse rate, feeling dizzy, being pale and clammy, losing consciousness.
Keep away from children. Keep all medication out of sight and reach of children at all times.
Taking the time to read the label on your medication and learning how to use OTC pain relievers means you can get the right pain relief for you and help to avoid side effects. When used as recommended, OTC analgesics can provide the pain relief you need, so you don’t have to live with pain and can enjoy your life to the fullest.
- Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference. 36th Edition, March 2009.
- Food and Drug Administration. Health Hints: Use Caution with Pain Relievers. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm133428.htm
- Proprietary Association of Great Britain. Managing your pain effectively, using ‘Over the Counter (OTC)’ Medicines. Available at: http://www.pagb.co.uk/painleaflet.pdf.
- Resuscitation Council UK. Emergency treatment of anaphylactic reactions. Guidelines for healthcare providers. Available at: http://www.resus.org.uk/pages/reaction.pdf.