How to choose the right over-the-counter medication for your aches and pains
Headaches, heartburn and other common aches and pains, call for quick relief. But it may be hard to figure out exactly what to take, especially when there are so many choices on drugstore shelves. To help sort it out, we asked experts to weigh in on what to take for these common complaints.
A word of caution before you buy, though. If you take any prescription drugs, ask the pharmacist if it’s okay to combine them with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, advises Aaron Gilbert, Pharm.D., a pharmacist and operations manager at HealthWarehouse.com, in Florence, Kentucky.
“Pharmacists are nearly always willing to answer questions about over-the-counter medications,” he adds. It’s also important to speak with your provider before trying any new medication. Here’s what Gilbert recommends for these ordinary aches and pains.
It may be hard to do anything when your head hurts. For mild tension headaches, consider a pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Aleve, Motrin), says Gilbert. Tension headaches are considered mild if you get them just a few times a month.1
What to know: If you have stomach problems, ulcers or kidney issues, don’t take ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). They can make those problems worse.
For sinus pressure along with head pain, try a product that contains a combination of acetaminophen and phenylephrine (Tylenol Sinus + Headache, Sudafed). Some ibuprofen-containing products may also contain phenylephrine (Advil Sinus Congestion & Pain, Sudafed with ibuprofen), says Gilbert. “Phenylephrine acts as a decongestant in addition to the pain reliever,” he adds.
What to know: “Decongestants can raise your blood pressure,” says Gilbert. So don’t take them if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or a heart condition.
Muscle aches or minor sprains
Everyone strains a muscle or twists an ankle once in a while. Naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil) are good picks for reducing pain and inflammation, says Gilbert.
But if your provider has told you not to take NSAIDs, use acetaminophen (Tylenol). That will relieve the ache. It won’t reduce swelling or inflammation, though.
Instead, try capsaicin cream (Capzasin), Aspercreme or Icy Hot, Gilbert adds. You can use these creams in combination with pain relievers or on their own.
What to know: Sprains should be checked out by your primary care provider to rule out small fractures, says Gilbert. Along with pain relievers, ice the injury with a cold compress for the first 24 hours to reduce swelling. After that, use a heating pad or hot compress to increase circulation and reduce swelling.
Lower back pain
Is your back feeling sore or stiff? Try a menthol treatment like Biofreeze. It comes as a gel or a patch. Lidocaine patches, such as Salonpas with lidocaine, may also soothe an aching lower back, Gilbert says.
What to know: If your pain doesn’t go away in a couple days, consult your provider to help find the source of it, advises Gilbert. Drugstore treatments “can mask the root problem,” he adds. They won’t make an injury go away permanently.
Most cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus.2 Once you have this virus in your body, it may cause random outbreaks of cold sores. A topical cream with docosanol (Abreva) is an antiviral medication that helps ease pain.
What to know: Start using docosanol cream as soon as you feel a cold sore coming on or the first time you spot it. Gilbert says to apply it as often as the label recommends. Your cold sore may clear up more quickly if you do that.
Cramps, gas or bloating
For uncomfortable cramps, try Midol or ibuprofen, says Gilbert. If gas or bloating are making you uncomfortable, use products that have simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta).
What to know: Midol contains caffeine, in case you typically avoid it.
What makes a cut minor? It will be less than three-fourths of an inch long or less than a quarter inch deep. And if you put pressure on it, the bleeding stops.3
To care for these cuts, wash it out with soap and warm water, says Gilbert. Then apply an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin. Once you’ve done that, cover it with a bandage. Then put more ointment 3 or 4 times a day. Clean it each time before putting the ointment. Then put a new bandage. Do this until the cut heals, says Gilbert.
Another way to make cuts heal faster: Apply a waterproof bandage that holds moisture in, says David Cutler, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Wounds should be kept somewhat moist to help healing, rather than being dry or left open to the air,” says Dr. Cutler.
What to know: If you can’t stop the bleeding, call your primary care provider. You may need to go to the emergency room for stitches if the injury is serious. Also call your provider if the skin around the cut becomes red or has pus, says Gilbert.
These can be very painful. You may need to see a dentist to find out what’s causing your pain. Before the appointment, you can use a numbing gel with benzocaine (Orajel) to relieve the ache, says Gilbert.
What to know: Tooth pain may be your body’s way of letting you know that you may need to pay more attention to your teeth and gums. Make brushing twice a day and flossing a habit.
When this pain hits, there are three ways to treat it.4 You can take antacids (Tums, Rolaids) for indigestion. H-2 blockers with famotidine (Pepcid AC) or cimetidine (Tagamet) also help relieve and prevent heartburn. If you have heartburn twice a week or more, ask about trying an OTC proton-pump inhibitor (PPI), such as omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium 24HR).
What to know: Check with your primary care provider or pharmacist if you take prescription medications. H-2 blockers and PPIs can interact with some other medications.
What to have in the medicine cabinet
If all of this sounds like a lot to buy, don’t worry. You don’t need to have every OTC drug at home. Some of them might expire before you ever use them, says Dr. Cutler.
The must-haves are ibuprofen, acetaminophen, bandages and antibiotic ointment, he says. Also consider keeping an ice compress and a compression bandage handy for sprains. Buy the rest as needed.
When to call your provider
OTC medications are good for treating occasional or minor aches. But sometimes what seems minor becomes more serious. That might include pounding headaches that start happening more than 3 times a week, for instance. Another example is heartburn or lower back pain that doesn’t quit no matter what medicine you take.
When those things happen, it’s smart to check in with your primary care provider. Without knowing what’s causing the pain, it’s hard for providers to come up with the best treatment, says Dr. Cutler. Your provider is trained to ask questions to get to the bottom of the pain.
And if you’re not sure what medicine to take for your aches, ask your provider or the pharmacist for advice. They can guide you to the right medication, over the counter or otherwise.