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Are Pain Relievers Safe?

When taken properly and according to the label instructions, OTC pain relievers are safe for most people. However, if you need pain relief for more than 10 days, talk to your health care provider.

While pain relievers are usually safe, side effects can occur and may be quite serious for some people. For instance, people who take blood-thinning medications or who have active stomach or bowel ulcers should not take aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

In addition, children and teenagers with chickenpox, "flu," or fever should not take aspirin because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a potentially serious medical condition. Also, FDA and manufacturers now say that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under age 4.

Some doctors believe that people with asthma may experience shortness of breath when taking aspirin and should avoid this pain reliever.

Anti-inflammatory pain relievers -- including ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen -- reduce inflammation and pain but may also cause stomach upset. They can also cause fluid retention, leading to edema as well as kidney and liver failure. People with asthma are at higher risk for experiencing serious allergic reactions to anti-inflammatory drugs. In addition, these pain relievers can increase blood pressure, particularly in people who already have high blood pressure.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is easier on the stomach than the NSAIDs, but it can cause liver damage if you take more than it says on the instructions, particularly if you drink alcohol. Acetaminophen should not be used by people with existing liver disease or by those who regularly consume moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol.

Be aware that combination cold medicines often contain a pain reliever, usually acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so be careful not to take extra pain reliever. Be sure to read the ingredients label to see which pain reliever is used. If the pain reliever in the cold medicine is not safe for your health situation, find another cold medicine. To be safe, talk with your health care provider about OTC pain relievers to find the one that's best for your situation.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on August 01, 2014
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