Over-the-Counter Pain Medication Uses


I’m a little confused about what over-the-counter medications are good for what purposes. Can you provide me with information and recommendations?


This is a question that I get quite a bit in my classes when we talk about survival kits and what pain medications to put in a medical kit. I am NOT a doctor, but I’ll be glad to offer my understanding on “what does what” regarding the most common over-the-counter pain relievers.

Ibuprofen is the generic name for pain relievers like Advil and Motrin. It is generally taken when the pain is associated with inflammation. The maximum dosage is 3,200 milligrams (mg) during a 24-hour period. Ibuprofen is generally taken for arthritis pain, headaches, menstrual cramps, rheumatoid arthritis, dental pain, and muscle aches.

Acetaminophen is the generic name given for pain relievers like Tylenol and Excedrin. The maximum dosage is 4,000 milligrams (mg) during a 24-hour period. It is generally taken when the pain is caused by something other than inflammation or as a fever reducer. Acetaminophen is often taken for headaches, muscle aches, backaches, toothaches, colds, and fevers.

Aspirin today is generally only used in the case of someone having a heart attack. It prevents the platelets in the blood from sticking together, increasing the person’s chance for survival. It is best to carry 81 milligrams (mg) of the chewable version, or “baby aspirin”. This is because chewing the aspirin will allow the medicine to enter your system more quickly than a coated version of the pill.

You’ll notice that there is a pretty large overlap in the recommendations for ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Both will reduce pain, but each work on a different type of pain receptor in your body. In general, if there is pain from inflammation, take ibuprofen. If there is pain from something else or if there is a fever, take acetaminophen.

Survival Pro Tip on pain medications:
Personally, I take two ibuprofen (500 mg each) and two acetaminophen (250 mg each) every six hours. This will give me 1,000 mg of ibuprofen (which lasts 6 hours) and 500 mg of acetaminophen (which lasts for 4 hours) and pain relief for both of the pain receptors that are giving me discomfort. This is also what I take when I have the symptoms of a cold and/or the flu.

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