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Over-the-Counter Medications for Migraines

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on November 02, 2020

You may not need a prescription to treat your migraines. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are widely sold and work well for some people. You can take them for migraine with or without aura.

OTC Options

Pain relievers usually work best if you take them as soon as a migraine attack starts. That’s because it takes time for your body to absorb the medication.

You can find lots of pain relievers for migraines on your pharmacy shelves:

Acetaminophen

This doesn’t ease inflammation, which is especially helpful for migraines. But acetaminophen is still good for mild pain.

Be sure to take no more than the dosage on the package. Taking too much may harm you liver or even lead to liver failure. The maximum recommended dose for adults is 4,000 milligrams in 24 hours.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

They help tamp down inflammation that causes migraines. So they’re often a better choice than acetaminophen.

NSAIDs include:

  • Aspirin. You can buy it combined with acetaminophen and caffeine to help with mild pain. Aspirin may cause stomach trouble.
  • Ibuprofen. People often have tummy problems with ibuprofen. Avoid taking it if you’ve had kidney issues, liver problems, or stomach ulcers, or if you’ve recently had a heart attack.
  • Naproxen. This medication may last longer than other pain relievers. But naproxen might upset your stomach. Always have some food with naproxen to help prevent stomach upset.

Anti-nausea drugs

A migraine often can make you queasy and throw up. Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medicine to help. Over-the-counter versions can interact with some common pain relievers.

When and How to Use OTC Drugs

They usually aren’t as strong or work as quickly as prescription medications. So it’s best to reach for OTC products when your symptoms come on slowly or are mild or moderate. You may need prescription drugs if you have vomiting or severe nausea.

Too much pain medication of any kind may trigger headaches more often or make them stronger and harder to treat. Doctors call these medication-overuse headaches. That could happen quickly for some people, or take months or years for others.

Limit over-the-counter pain relievers to no more than 3 days a week. If that doesn’t help, or if you get intense migraines on more than 4 or 5 days a month, ask your doctor about other medications.

Taking pain relievers for a long time may lead to ulcers and stomach bleeding. Talk to your doctor first if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have a health condition, or take other medications.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

UpToDate: “Acute treatment of migraine in adults.”

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine with aura,” “Migraine.”

National Health Service (U.K.): “Naproxen,” “Treatment -- Migraine.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Headache Medications,” “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs),” “Gastroparesis,” “Migraine Headaches: Management and Treatment.”

Merck Manual: “Migraines.”

National Headache Foundation: “Non-prescription Migraine Therapies.”

FDA: “Don't Double Up on Acetaminophen.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Gastroparesis: Introduction.”

KnowYourOTCs.org: “Acetaminophen (acetam -- APAP),” “Naproxen Sodium (naproxen),” “Ibuprofen (ibuprofen sodium, solubilized ibuprofen),” “Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid -- ASA),” “Best Over-the-Counter Solutions to Your Digestive Problem.”

American Migraine Foundation: “Over-the-Counter Medications vs. Prescription Medications.”

Patient Related Outcome Measures: “Optimal management of severe nausea and vomiting in migraine: improving patient outcomes.”

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