Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, or analgesics, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, are generally convenient and safe remedies for occasional minor pain due to a wide variety of conditions. Aspirin and ibuprofen also combat inflammation, and aspirin and acetaminophen (and to a lesser extent ibuprofen) are excellent at reducing fever. Sometimes, a doctor may even prescribe and supervise their long-term use for chronic conditions, such as arthritis.
Still, just because anyone can buy these drugs without a prescription doesn't mean they are safe for every person in every situation. Like almost any drug, used improperly, they can have serious and even deadly effects. That's why it's essential that, before you take any of them -- and preferably before the need even arises -- you ask your doctor which is safest and best for you. It's important to ask again if you develop a new medical problem, begin taking a new prescription or OTC drug or supplement, become pregnant, or begin breast-feeding (a woman who is or may be pregnant or is nursing should contact her doctor before taking any prescription or OTC drug; vitamin, mineral, or other supplement; or herb or other alternative remedy). A doctor should also be consulted before any analgesic is given to a child, and aspirin should never be given to anyone under 19 years old, because of the risk of a rare, fatal condition called Reye syndrome.
In addition, you should not take any OTC pain reliever without your doctor's explicit consent and direction if you:
- Have ever had an allergic reaction to any pain reliever.
- Are taking any other prescription or OTC drug that contains a pain reliever.
- Have kidney or liver disease, diabetes, or gout.
- Have or ever had an ulcer or any bleeding in the stomach or intestines.
- Have a bleeding disorder or take a blood-thinning medication.
- Have more than two alcoholic drinks daily.
- Have high blood pressure, a history of stroke, fluid retention, congestive heart failure, or heart disease or have recently had or are scheduled for the heart surgery called coronary bypass graft surgery (CABG).
- Have asthma or nasal polyps.
When taking an OTC analgesic, read and follow label directions carefully and do not exceed the recommended dose or take it more than occasionally without your doctor's approval and supervision.