We explain how paracetamol and ibuprofen works, what pain they can treat, and when you should avoid them.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen, what to take and when

With one in ten Aussies experiencing pain at any given time, and one in five experiencing chronic pain, it’s not surprising that over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are a staple of most Aussies’ medical cupboards. But what exactly is the difference between the two drugs, and is one more effective than the other? We take a look.

Know your painkillers: opioids and non-opioids

First a step back. There are two main groups of painkillers -- opioids and non-opioids -- and these are prescribed depending on the type and level of pain. Opioids are commonly prescribed for more acute, severe pain, and include drugs such as morphine, codeine, endone and oxycodone. In contrast, non-opioids are more commonly used to treat mild to moderate pain, and the two leading types of non-opioids are paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.

So, what's the difference between Paracetamol vs ibuprofen?

Common in Australia, paracetamol and ibuprofen are both used to treat mild to moderate pain including fevers, headaches, backaches, period pains and arthritis -- but they do so in different ways.

  • Paracetamol: Despite having been used as a painkiller for more than 50 years, interestingly, the way paracetamol works is not fully understood. However, it’s believed to reduce the intensity of pain signals in the brain.
  • Ibuprofen: As a NSAID, ibuprofen reduces inflammation by blocking the production of prostaglandins-- a natural chemical the body releases when sick or injured, causing pain, inflammation and fever.

What to know when picking pain killers

Whether you opt for paracetamol or ibuprofen usually depends on the type or cause of pain, your medical history and any other medications you may be on. Your GP or pharmacist will be able to recommend the most suitable option based on your needs at the time. For example, if you’ve suffered from an injury and have swelling and redness, a NSAID such as ibuprofen may be more suitable due to its anti-inflammatory benefits.

The important thing to know is when you should avoid certain painkillers. Obviously, neither painkiller should be taken if you’re allergic to the medication, and ibuprofen should be avoided if you’re pregnant or suffer from a gastrointestinal ulcer. If you have an existing health condition or are on other medication, always check with your GP or pharmacist before taking painkillers -- whether they’re over-the-counter or not. Additionally, always follow the recommended dosage and if you have an adverse reaction to a painkiller, seek medical help immediately.

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