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If you’re looking for relief from the symptoms of a cold, fever, or the flu, you’ll find many over-the-counter (OTC) options at your local pharmacy.

The pain and fever-reducing ingredients often found in these medicines -- acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and aspirin -- are safe for most adults if taken correctly. But in the throes of fever or the flu, you may not think as clearly about safety.

To be prepared, read this primer on OTC pain relievers, so when illness strikes, you’ll know how they work to reduce fever, aches, and pains and how to use them safely.

Pain Relief Basics: NSAIDs and Acetaminophen

Two common groups of pain relievers are acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs ( NSAIDs). Most OTC pain relief drugs contain one or the other.

These medications don’t make illnesses go away, but they can relieve some symptoms so you suffer less while the cold, flu, or fever works its way through your system.

NSAIDs. This group of drugs relieves pain and fever by tamping down on the substances in your body that cause the feeling of pain, and they help control body temperature.

Drugs in the NSAID category include:

  • Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil and Motrin
  • Aspirin, found in Bayer or St. Joseph
  • Naproxen sodium, found in Aleve

Acetaminophen. This is an active ingredient in Tylenol and many other prescription and non-prescription medications. Acetaminophen seems to work on the parts of the brain that perceive pain and control body temperature.

The Risks of Taking NSAIDs for Pain Relief

NSAIDs are safe for most people when taken at the right dose for a short period. However, they can increase risk for serious  stomach bleeding. NSAIDs may also increase the chance for  heart attack and  stroke.

Ask a doctor before using NSAIDS if:

Combining NSAIDs with more than two to three  alcoholic drinks a day for women or three to four for men increases the risk for stomach bleeding. Taking NSAIDs along with  blood-thinning medications can also increase the risk for bleeding including serious stomach bleeding. Talk to your doctor if you drink alcohol or take and blood thinning medicines before using an NSAID. Others factors that increase risk for stomach bleeding include:

  • Having a previous history of stomach bleeding
  • Being over age 60
  • Taking steroid medications, or other NSAID medications


Choosing an OTC Pain Reliever

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

What usually has you reaching for an OTC pain reliever?

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