Over-the-counter pain medication:  What you need to know

Where would we be without painkillers? We’ve likely all used over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication to relieve those common aches and pains like headaches, toothaches, or muscle strain. However, despite being readily available, you still need to take care when using them.

What is OTC pain medication?

There are a wide variety of OTC pain medications that can be used for a range of conditions that you can get, usually at a pharmacy, without a prescription. 
 
While it can be confusing, particularly given the different brands and packaging, there are only a few different types of active ingredients:
 
  • Paracetamol (known sometimes as acetaminophen) 
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin
  • stronger preparations that combine paracetamol or a NSAID with codeine, with or without a sedating antihistamine.
 

Choosing the right medication for you

Before making your selection, it’s important to understand what might be causing the pain you are treating or the type of pain you’re experiencing. That’s why it’s a good idea to seek the advice of your pharmacist. Pharmacists understand how medicines work, as well as potential side effects these medications  can have.
 
In order to help your pharmacist advise you correctly, be prepared to explain:
 
  • where the pain is
  • how long you’ve had it
  • what the pain feels like
  • what other medications you may have already taken and whether they worked
  • what other medications (including herbal preparations) you may be taking (even ones that seem unrelated to your pain). 
mixture of tablets body

Can OTC painkillers have side effects?

Judith Ngai, a community pharmacist who also works at Bupa, says that while the ingredients in OTC pain medicines are generally safe, there is the potential for unexpected reactions, as well as interactions between them and other preparations you may also be taking, both on or without prescription.
 
“These can include other pain relievers, blood thinners, steroid-based medicines, and other medicines for long-term conditions. Pain medications can also be affected by certain health conditions, or make an existing health condition worse, in particular heart, stomach, kidney and liver issues,” she says.

What if the painkiller doesn’t work?

Sometimes, OTC pain relievers are not effective. However, Ngai cautions against taking extra doses.
 
“Taking more than the recommended dose doesn’t necessarily mean the medicine will be more effective. Instead, it could cause serious harm,” she says.
 
“The best thing is to speak to your pharmacist or doctor about your current pain relief to see if there are other things that may help.
 
“Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist pain clinic that can provide a range of services, including allied health professionals, and self-care techniques, to help manage persistent pain.”

Be safe with medicines

Taking an appropriate pain reliever for the occasional problem is fine. It’s something most of us have done at some time or another. However, you still need to take care with OTC medications, as some side effects can be serious, as can an overdose.
 
If you suspect that you or someone else has overdosed on painkillers, or you notice any adverse side effects, you should immediately phone your doctor or the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for advice. Alternatively, you can head to your nearest hospital emergency department.  
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