What's the Difference Between Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 09, 2021
3 min read

Both acetaminophen and ibuprofen are generic names for over-the-counter pain relief drugs. They act differently in the body, though.

Acetaminophen, which is packaged as Tylenol, relieves pain and reduces fever. Ibuprofen, popularly packaged as Advil or Motrin, is an anti-inflammatory medication that is used to treat moderate pain from conditions like arthritis and menstrual cramps.

Because both are used as pain relievers, you might wonder whether acetaminophen or ibuprofen is better. 

Acetaminophen comes as Tylenol and other brand names. It is a fever reducer (antipyretic) and pain reliever (analgesic).

The most common way to use acetaminophen is oral, or by mouth. You should follow the dosage recommended by your doctor or as directed on the label.

Acetaminophen is also present in some prescription medicines. Do not use the over-the-counter form with medicines containing acetaminophen, as an overdose could be fatal. 

Ibuprofen is a painkiller that lowers inflammation in the body. It is related to aspirin and naproxen, which is the main ingredient in Aleve and Anaprox. The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) reduces inflammation and pain in certain conditions, such as back pain, toothache, headache, menstrual cramps, minor injuries, and arthritis. 

Use ibuprofen as directed on the label or recommended by your doctor. It is best to take the lowest dose of ibuprofen to treat your condition. 

Acetaminophen can cause an allergic reaction in your body. The signs of an acetaminophen allergy are swelling in the face, tongue, throat, and lips. You may also develop hives or have difficulty breathing. 

In some rare cases, the painkiller may have a lethal skin reaction. This is even possible if you have never had an adverse reaction to the drug in the past. If you experience blistering, rash, redness, or peeling on your skin, talk to your doctor right away and stop taking the medicine. 

Some other side effects of acetaminophen are: 

If you have heart disease, stomach ulcers, asthma, or have had a heart attack, ask your doctor if you can take ibuprofen. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also consult with their doctors before taking this drug.

Like acetaminophen, you can also be allergic to ibuprofen. The signs of an allergic reaction are swelling in the throat or face.

Some other ibuprofen side effects are:

  • Vision changes
  • Shortness of breath with moderate activity 
  • Rapid weight gain 
  • Skin rash 
  • Liver problems 
  • Kidney problems 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bleeding
  • Headaches and dizziness 

You should use acetaminophen for pain, but if you also have inflammation, consider taking ibuprofen instead. You can also take both of them together if you have pain and inflammation. However, never take more than the recommended dosage. If you are confused between ibuprofen vs. acetaminophen usage, choose ibuprofen for inflammatory conditions and acetaminophen for just pain. 

Also, if you are pregnant, you can use acetaminophen since it is considered safe for breastfeeding and pregnant mothers. 

On the other hand, ibuprofen is not always safe to take during pregnancy. Using any form of NSAIDs in the last 20 weeks can result in kidney and heart problems in the baby. 

Plus, it can complicate your pregnancy. Always talk to your doctor before using over-the-counter medicines if you are pregnant or have heart, kidney, or liver disease.