Potential Risks of Common Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen are readily available on your grocery and drug store shelves. No prescription is needed. Pop a couple and your pain, fever or headache disappear. While these common over-the-ounter (OTC) medications are generally safe, they're still powerful chemicals. Knowing how OTC pain reliever should, and shouldn't, be used is essential to avoiding potentially damaging effects.

Aspirin is among the oldest, most trusted remedies for fever, pain, arthritis, and symptoms of colds and flu. It's also an anticoagulant, which means it thins the blood and prevents it from clotting. That's why baby aspirin is prescribed to people with heart disease to prevent strokes and heart attacks.  

When taken too frequently or by people with blood clotting disorders, aspirin can cause bleeding problems and stomach irritation. It can also trigger asthma in some people.    

Aspirin should never be given to children or teenagers who have a fever, flu symptoms or chicken pox because it can trigger a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome.

Acetaminophen is a pain reliever, fever reducer, and great for children and adults with headache, muscle pain, arthritis and symptoms of colds and flu. It's frequently combined with other medications like cough suppressants, antihistamines and even narcotic pain relievers. That's what makes it potentially dangerous.  

When taken in small doses (no more than 3000-4000mg. per day), acetaminophen is safe, but taking more than that can cause liver damage. Since it's combined with other medications, it's easy to accidentally take too much. Say, for example you take a couple of extra-strength acetaminophen along with a cold medicine containing it as well. If you repeat this combination several times in a 24-hour period, you could easily overdose.

People who drink more than a few alcoholic beverages per day are also at high risk for liver disease and shouldn't take products with acetaminophen in them.

Acetaminophen-induced liver damage is usually gradual, but acute poisoning can also occur. Symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, lack of appetite and fatigue.

Ibuprofen is classified as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication that reduces inflammation, pain and fever. It's the drug of choice for many people with bone, joint and muscle pain, menstrual cramps, and sprains.

Like aspirin, ibuprofen can cause bleeding, especially in the stomach and intestines. Many people experience stomach pain when taking ibuprofen, so it's recommend that it be taken with food. Ibuprofen can trigger asthma in some people.

Pregnant women shouldn't take ibuprofen. People with known bleeding disorders and those who bruise easily should ask their doctor if ibuprofen is safe for them.

Naproxen is another NSAID and is often recommended for longer-lasting or chronic pain like arthritis, gout or menstrual cramps. It relieves inflammation and pain for up to twelve hours on one dose.  

Naproxen has been associated with serious cardiac problems and can increase risk for heart attack and stroke, especially with long-term use. Like ibuprofen and aspirin, it can cause stomach irritation, increased bleeding, bruising and may trigger asthma.    

Most healthy people who use OTC pain medications occasionally have no reason to worry about their safety. Those with health problems or who need pain medication regularly should consult with their physician. Always read labels to find out what's in your medications and how to take them properly.