What is the difference between ibuprofen and acetaminophen?

Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are commonly recommended medications to relieve pain or reduce fever. While both are effective pain relievers or analgesics as well as effective fever reducers or antipyretics, the main difference between them is that ibuprofen also acts as an anti-inflammatory while acetaminophen does not. Ibuprofen is also generally preferred over acetaminophen when long-term use is required. Both ibuprofen and acetaminophen are generally available over the counter (OTC), and while they cause few side effects, those potential side effects differ.

Sold as generic medications as well as under brand names, ibuprofen and acetaminophen have become widely known for offering toothache, muscle pain, and headache relief. Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol, is the active ingredient in popular remedies such as Tylenol® and Excedrin®. It works by blocking chemicals that send pain messages and cool down the body. Ibuprofen, marketed under US brand names such as Advil® and Motrin®, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, that stops the body's production of pain-causing chemicals and reduces fever and swelling. Acetaminophen is not an NSAID.

Acetaminophen is generally mild with few side effects. As such, it is considered safe for a wide variety of people, including children, pregnant women, and people who experience stomach irritation from aspirin. However, it can cause liver damage if not taken as directed. Significant liver damage can result if taken with alcohol. There are also some risks of drug interactions, usually with blood-thinning medications such as Coumadin®.

Ibuprofen is also gentler on the digestive system than aspirin, and because it is an NSAID, it is safer than a steroid drug when taken long-term for pain relief. Due to its effective anti-inflammatory properties, it is often recommended for people who suffer from chronic pain due to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. However, there are risks of heart attack and stroke for people who take ibuprofen for long periods of time. People with a history of such conditions should consult a doctor before using the drug.

Both drugs are also prescribed by doctors, usually in higher doses than are available without a prescription, to help relieve more severe pain. Patients with chronic pain due to migraines, arthritis, or traumatic injuries, for example, may be given higher concentrations of acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms. Doctors also prescribe these medications to control pain associated with conditions such as gout or psoriasis.

Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are often combined with other over-the-counter medications to relieve a variety of common health problems. It is recommended that people check the labels of such over-the-counter products before taking additional pain relievers to avoid accidental overdose. Medication combinations designed as sleep aids, allergy medications, cold remedies, and those that target specific illnesses like menstrual cramps or the flu often contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

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