ve a headache or a pulled muscle? Odds are over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like ibuprofen, aspirin or acetaminophen will do the trick. And unlike prescription pain medications containing opioids, OTC painkillers aren’t habit-forming, and likely won’t leave you groggy, dizzy, or even constipated. They’re also cheap and easy to find. All pharmacies carry both brand-name and generic varieties, which are generally cheaper and work just as well.
We were curious how satisfied people are with OTC pain relievers, so we went through the database of drug reviews from our friends at Iodine, based on users’ real-life experiences with their medications. Turns out most people find that OTC pain relievers work really well — at least 75% of reviewers said every drug was worth it.
“Worth it” scores reflect how well a medication worked for the people reviewing it, with factors like effectiveness and side effects put into consideration. That said, there are some intriguing differences in the data. Below are the top 5 OTC pain medications people prefer, based on a sample of more than 4,000 people.
Ibuprofen – worth it score: 88%
Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that treats pain, fever and swelling. Out of 892 reviewers, nearly 9 out of 10 said the drug was worth taking. You can expect ibuprofen to start working 30 to 60 minutes after taking it. It’s recommended to take it with food to prevent an upset stomach. And since ibuprofen can hurt your kidneys, do not take the medication if you have a history of a kidney disorder.
Aspirin/citric acid/sodium bicarbonate – worth it score: 78%
In aspirin/citric acid/sodium bicarbonate (Alka-Seltzer), the aspirin is a pain reliever, while the sodium bicarbonate is an antacid that fights heartburn and indigestion. 8 out of 10 of reviewers said the fizzy concoction is worth taking, though children under the age of 12 should not take aspirin as it can poison the liver in uncontrolled doses.
Naproxen – worth it score: 78%
Naproxen (Aleve), like other NSAIDs, treats pain, swelling and fever. Similar to ibuprofen, naproxen starts working in as little as 30 minutes and you should avoid using it if you have kidney problems. Pharmacists say not to take it with aspirin unless directed so by your doctor.
Acetaminophen – worth it score: 77%
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a weak anti-inflammatory medication often mistaken for an NSAID. It’s extremely effective at relieving pain and reducing a fever. According to our pharmacists, acetaminophen should start working about an hour after you take it. But be warned: Taking too much of acetaminophen can cause severe liver damage, and it’s easy to misjudge how much you’re taking if you’re using multiple medications together. Read more about how to avoid taking too much acetaminophen here.
Aspirin – worth it score: 76%
Aspirin reduces fever, treats pain, and can protect the heart in people at risk for cardiovascular disease. Even though 3 out of 4 people think aspirin is worth it, it thins the blood so taking it on a regular basis can increase the chances of internal bleeding. Because of this, Iodine’s pharmacists recommend ibuprofen or acetaminophen instead as safer options for pain relief and reducing a fever.