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Which Over-the-Counter Drug to Take for Fevers, Aches and Pains

A primer to sort through the options: Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, Bayer

Reviewed by: Frank Garber, Jr., APRN, FNP-C

Life comes with aches, pains and fevers. SouthStar Urgent Care clinics are always here to take care of your urgent medical needs, but sometimes an over-the-counter medication is enough. If you’re simply trying to figure out what type of medication to take, we can help with some general guidance. As always, you should follow the instructions on the bottle of any medication and ask a medical professional if you have questions.

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are the best-known over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain and fever. They’re marketed under many names, but Tylenol, Advil, Aleve and Bayer are the most well-known.

Many people consider these drugs interchangeable, but they actually fall into two different drug categories that work in very different ways: acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Brands that contain these drugs have specific benefits — and unique considerations — that can help you get relief. Here’s some guidance for you.

Keep in mind, if your fever or pain is serious, long-lasting or you can’t take any of these medications because of your medical history, possible drug interactions or other health risks, we’re happy to help you at one of our urgent care clinics.

Acetaminophen (like Tylenol) reduces pain and fever (arthritis, muscle aches, etc.). It is not a NSAID.

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) reduces inflammation and swelling at the site of an injury. This is the better choice for quick relief. It is the best choice for young children. It is a NSAID.

Naproxen (Aleve) is good for long-acting relief. It lasts longer in your body but is best for people 12 and up. Because it sticks around, it can be harder on your stomach. If you’re at risk for heart disease, naproxen is a good option for you. It’s a good option for arthritis relief, too. It is a NSAID.

Aspirin (Bayer) used to be the go-to for pain and fever, but there are now better options. It works a lot like ibuprofen, but also slows clotting in the bloodstream. That’s why it’s often given related to heart attack or stroke. However, it can irritate the stomach, and children should never take aspirin. It is a NSAID.

What To Take When You’re Achy

If you’re just feeling the effects of a cold or fever, it’s up to you. All four medications will help you feel better. If they don’t, come see us.

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What To Take For a Headache

If a headache is your only symptom, you can reach for acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin (keeping in mind any limitations we called out already about your health risks, age, etc.). People respond differently to these medications and for headaches, you might find that one works best for you. Technically, they’ll all help, and the variation is largely in the timing of dosing.

For Fevers That Won’t “Break”

If you’re having trouble keeping a fever away for more than three hours, visit your local SouthStar Urgent Care. It’s especially important that young children be seen by a medical provider as it can be dangerous to suppress a fever for too long.

For Infants And Small Children With Fevers

Children 6 months and younger should never be given OTC fever reducers and should always be seen by a medical professional if they have a fever. Those 6 to 24 months can take a fever reducer short-term but should come in if the fever lasts more than 24 hours. Those over age 2 can wait up to 3 days before seeing a medical provider. Children of any age should visit an urgent care clinic or their primary care provider if they show signs of dehydration, have a headache, earache, pain with urination, sore throat, diarrhea or vomiting. These are general guidelines, and every child is different. It is always better to be safe than sorry, and that’s exactly why SouthStar clinics are ready to help!

For fever reduction, never give a child aspirin: it is linked to Reye’s Syndrome. Our preferred fever reducer for kids is acetaminophen (Tylenol).

What To Take For Extreme Pain

If you need help with pain for more than a couple of days, visit the SouthStar Urgent Care nearest you. Likewise, if OTC medications aren’t working, that’s a sign that you need a medical professional.

SouthStar Urgent Care Can Help

If you have any doubt about your condition or whether a medication is safe for you to take, your local SouthStar Urgent Care center can help you feel better. We’ll ask you about your symptoms, their duration, possible causes, talk with you about your health history and review your medications. Based on your specific case, we can then provide safe recommendations.

With extended hours, including weekends and evenings, there’s no need to wait to feel better. Find one of our convenient locations here and check-in online.

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Safety Alerts

All medications include side effects. Read all labels. Also be sure to:

  • Watch for accidental doubling-up: Always check the label for ingredients and avoid taking multiple medications containing the same drug. For example, acetaminophen isn’t just in Tylenol — it’s also an ingredient in many other common medications such as Nyquil, Sudafed and Theraflu. You can see how easily you could accidentally double up, but doing so can have significant negative impacts on your health.
  • Always check your dose: Even if you’ve taken a medication many times before, read the directions for dosing. There can be significant variance bottle-to-bottle. A quick online search yielded Tylenol Regular Strength tablets with 325 mg of acetaminophen, liquid gels with 325 mg and rapid release, extra strength gel caps with 500 mg. All are solid options, but doses will vary.
  • Consider your health history: If you have ulcers, type 2 diabetes, kidney problems or heart disease, opt for acetaminophen and check with a medical provider before taking other medications.

When To Seek Medical Advice

We know it’s not realistic to see a medical provider for every ache and pain. But you should always seek medical attention if you:

  • Have a persistent, high fever (103 degrees, lasting more than three days).
  • Are vomiting and it persists for more than a few hours, or if there you have signs of dehydration.
  • Hve a burn that is worse than redness, swelling and pain.
  • Have fallen and may have a concussion.
  • Experience changes in your bowel movements or urination, and they persist for more than a few days.
  • Think you may have broken a bone. See us for sprains and strains, too.
  • See the section above for child-specific guidance.
  • If you have questions or aren’t sure about which medication you should take – particularly if you have any of the conditions that can’t tolerate OTC medications or are taking prescription or other OTC medications for pain, heart conditions, cold, flu or other chronic conditions.

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When To Call 911 Or Go To The ER

If you are in a situation that might be life-threatening, go straight to the emergency room or call 911. Situations like this include: Shortness of breath or breathing problems. Seizures or ‘black outs’. Sudden vision problems. Confusion or dizziness. Heavy bleeding. Possible breaks that appear to be deformed or blue, or that include bleeding. Serious burns.