What Are the Side Effects of Pain Medication?

Meds that relieve pain are valuable tools for doctors and patients. But, like all drugs, they can have side effects, and some of those can be serious. Here’s a look at some of the most common painkillers and what you need to know if you take them.

Over-the-Counter Products

The most common painkillers are ones you can buy in a store without a prescription, or “over the counter.” These products include acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. People usually take them for mild pains or fevers.

Aspirin

Aspirin is the oldest of a family of medicines known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. While they can relieve pain, they can also cause your stomach to bleed if you take them for a long time. (So can other NSAIDs.) This can cause problems from simple indigestion to stomach ulcers.

Taking a lot of NSAIDs may cause kidney damage.

You shouldn’t give aspirin to children because of the risk of a life-threatening condition called Reye's syndrome, which attacks the brain and liver.

Doctors often recommend aspirin for people who are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, because it can prevent blood clots. But since it can cause bleeding, taking aspirin every day also raises the odds of one kind of stroke that involves bleeding in the brain.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen can be taken on its own. It’s also in a lot of cold and sinus medicines.

Acetaminophen doesn’t cause the kind of stomach problems seen with aspirin. But if you take too much, or drink alcohol while taking it, it can cause liver damage.

It’s very important to know how much you’re taking of all of your medicines and to follow the dosing instructions exactly as they are on the label.

Ibuprofen

Ibuprofen is a more recent NSAID. Like aspirin and other NSAIDs, it can cause stomach or kidney problems. But it acts quickly and leaves the body faster than aspirin, lowering the chance of side effects.

Naproxen

This is another member of the NSAID family. It has the same possible side effects.

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Prescription Painkillers

The most powerful of these drugs are called opioids. They block the nerve signals that transmit feelings of pain to your brain, bringing feelings of pleasure. Doctors usually give them to people who have had recent surgery, a painful injury, or are living with a serious, long-term condition like cancer that causes ongoing pain.

Common opioid painkillers include:

Another very powerful opioid painkiller is fentanyl. It’s up to 100 times more powerful than other opioids, and it’s usually given to people who are near death from cancer and are in a lot of pain. But it’s also been abused or mixed into illegal drugs, resulting in many deaths.

Opioid side effects: Constipation is the most common one, affecting nearly everyone who takes them. But they also can cause:

Taking large amounts of opioid painkillers can stop your breathing. Because they’re addictive, they have become widely abused, and deaths from opioid overdoses have gone up sharply in recent years.

Only a small percentage of people who are prescribed opioids become addicted. But a lot more people are using them, and the risk goes up the longer you use them. If your doctor prescribes an opioid, follow the instructions carefully and ask your doctor if you have questions or concerns.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on January 23, 2018

Sources

SOURCES: 

CDC.

Harvard Medical School: “10 things you should know about common pain relievers.”

The Cleveland Clinic: “The downside and side effects of painkillers.”

The Mayo Clinic: “Daily aspirin therapy: Understand the benefits and risks.”

American Heart Association: “Aspirin and heart disease.”

American Family Physician: “Pharmacologic Therapy for Acute Pain.”

Pain Physician: “Opioid complications and side effects.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “Opioid Abuse in Chronic Pain -- Misconceptions and Mitigation Strategies.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Prescription Drugs and Cold Medicines,” “How Do Opioids Work?”

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: “Changes in Opioid Prescribing in the United States, 2006-2015.”

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