Acetaminophen vs. Ibuprofen: What to Take When

Should I Take Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen?

Reeder says determining which pain reliever to take is a matter of finding what works best for you. However, here are soft recommendations for common health ailments:

  • Headache, common cold or fever. This is a personal preference. Some feel acetaminophen works better for them, whereas others find ibuprofen better relieves a headache.
  • Muscle ache or pulled/strained muscle. Ibuprofen typically works better for this kind of pain relief, due to the anti-inflammatory effects.

Naproxen and aspirin are two other common over-the-counter pain relievers. Reeder describes the uses, benefits and potential problems with these as well:

  • Naproxen. Another anti-inflammatory drug, which works much like ibuprofen. Some studies show this may be a better choice than ibuprofen for people at risk for heart disease.
  • Aspirin. This also belongs to the non-steroid, anti-inflammatory medication class. It works similarly to ibuprofen but slows the clotting ability in the bloodstream. Because of this, it’s often given to reduce someone’s risk for heart attack and stroke. Aspirin isn’t recommended for children; it is linked to Reye’s syndrome, a childhood illness affecting the brain and liver.

Reeder says if you’re looking for advice about whether to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for COVID-19, here are some thoughts from a UnityPoint Health infectious disease expert. Read more about COVID-19.

In a newborn baby, we recommend that you immediately contact a provider if a baby is fussy or feverish enough to consider giving one of these medications. In most cases, baby will need a medical evaluation to determine the best course of care. Do not give acetaminophen to a newborn unless instructed by your provider. Ibuprofen should not be used until 6 months of age or older.

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Health Risks of Acetaminophen vs. Ibuprofen

While most people have no issue taking the appropriate doses of acetaminophen or ibuprofen, Reeder says there are situations where you should be extremely cautious. “Acetaminophen should be used carefully in those with liver problems, but it is safe for pregnant women. Ibuprofen, on the other hand, should be used cautiously by individuals with heart disease, high blood pressure, clotting disorders, kidney problems and the elderly. If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, you should not use ibuprofen,” Reeder says. Children specifically can only take pain relievers based on their age and weight. “Children 6-months-old and under can only take acetaminophen for fever. Ibuprofen may be used once children are over 6 months of age. The difference between adult versions of these medications and children versions is the dosing is adjusted based on the weight of the child,” Reeder says. Regardless of age, taking too much acetaminophen or ibuprofen can lead to health concerns in the future. “Too much ibuprofen can cause long-term kidney complications and potentially liver complications, too. It can also cause painful and bleeding ulcers in the stomach. Acetaminophen can be hard on the liver and may also cause kidney problems with long-term, chronic use,” Reeder says. Reeder stresses how taking more than the recommended amount of any medication is dangerous. She says to talk to your UnityPoint Health provider before taking either acetaminophen or ibuprofen regularly.

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