What Are OTC Anti-Inflammation Drugs?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on November 17, 2022
2 min read

Even mild chronic pain -- whether from arthritis, migraines, or another condition -- can really get to you. Naturally, you want to make the hurt go away. But what type of pain reliever do you need?

Many are “NSAIDs,” or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They lower the level of chemicals called prostaglandins that are involved in inflammation. The result: less swelling and pain.

Some NSAIDs need a prescription. Others are sold “over the counter,” or “OTC,” which means you don’t need a prescription to buy them. Examples include ibuprofen and naproxen.

It depends upon what the problem is, and on what’s OK for you. Your doctor can help you decide. Or if you’re in the drugstore and wondering what to try, ask the pharmacist.

Remember, even if you don’t need a prescription, medicines can still have side effects. Be sure to follow the dosing instructions. Don’t take too much, or for too long.

If you need pain medicine for more than 10 days, talk to your doctor to see which one is right for you.

Tell your doctor about everything you take, even if you bought it over the counter. They can check to make sure it’s OK for you.

Before recommending a specific pain pill, your doctor will consider:

  • Your medical history
  • Your current health concerns
  • Other medicines you take
  • Allergies and past reactions to meds
  • How well your liver and kidneys work
  • Any surgeries you’ve had
  • Your overall treatment plan and goals

For most people, side effects from NSAIDs, if any, are minor. The most common ones include:

Serious ones are rare. They can include:

  • Bleeding problems
  • Damage to the stomach and small intestine lining that can lead to ulcers
  • Kidney disease
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps
  • Hearing problems

Side effects vary among NSAIDs. Your doctor or your pharmacist can give you specific information about the side effects of the particular drug you're taking.

Tell your doctor if:

  • You're allergic to aspirin or any other pain reliever.
  • You have more than three alcoholic drinks a day.
  • You have stomach ulcers or bleeding in your digestive system.
  • You've got liver or kidney disease.
  • You have heart disease.
  • You take blood-thinning medicine or have a bleeding disorder.

Although aspirin taken in low doses with a doctor's supervision can help protect some people from a heart attack, some NSAIDs can raise your risk of heart disease and strokes, especially when you take high doses or take them for a long time. They can also interfere with blood pressure medicine, making it less effective.

Children and teenagers under 18 years old shouldn't take aspirin unless directed by their doctor, due to the risk of a serious condition called Reye's syndrome.