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Looking for pain relief but wondering about the difference between one pain reliever and another? 

To help you sort through the options, WebMD consulted four medical experts. Read on to learn what they say about the differences between over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and how to use them safely. Then use the charts to compare pain relievers and see their brand names.

OTC Pain Relievers Are Not All the Same

Acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the two main types of OTC pain relief products.

However, not all pain relievers do this in the same way. Different pain relievers affect the body differently -- and have different side effects.

Although these products are effective at relieving pain, not everyone responds to them the same way. “So if one type of pain reliever doesn’t work for you, another might,” says Bimal Ashar, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

How Accidental Overdoses Can Happen

NSAIDs and acetaminophen can cause problems when not used according to the recommendations on the label. “Nonprescription does not mean nontoxic,” says Edward Krenzelok, PharmD, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center and Drug Information Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “If you take a higher dose than recommended or take it for longer than advised, there can be serious adverse effects.”

Taking too much acetaminophen (overdose), for example, can cause liver damage.

“People don’t realize that acetaminophen is in hundreds of pain relief products. It’s found in cough and cold remedies, pain relievers, and prescription medications,” says Miranda Wilhelm, PharmD, clinical assistant professor at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Pharmacy. “So consumers often don’t recognize that they are taking two different products with the same ingredient.”

To compound the problem, many manufacturers have listed acetaminophen on labels as “APAP” (the abbreviation for another name for acetaminophen, “N -acetyl-p-aminophenol”). The FDA has mandated new labeling that clarifies this. “But many people still have products in their home with older labels, so it’s important to check,” Wilhelm says.

How to Avoid Problems with OTC Pain Relievers

“If you take OTC pain relievers according to the directions on the label, then you should be fine,” Ashar says. “However, they are still medicines. All have risks for side effects and interactions with other medications.”

To prevent complications, follow these tips:

Read and follow the label. Always look for the active ingredient on the label. That way you know what you are taking.

Use them as briefly as possible. “Over-the-counter pain relievers should only be used for the temporary relief of acute pain,” Krenzelok tells WebMD. If your pain lasts longer than 10 days, "it could be an indication of a more serious problem, and you should see your doctor for advice,” he says. Never take more than the recommended dose or take pain relievers for longer than recommended.

Choosing an OTC Pain Reliever

What you need to know to make a safe and effective choice.
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