Paracetamol or ibuprofen? What to take (uses and differences)
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are two medications that are used very frequently to treat fever and all kinds of pains, such as head or throat caused by colds and flu.
Although none of these medications usually have serious health risks and both are useful in alleviating certain symptoms, it is important to take into account that in some cases it is better to take acetaminophen and in other ibuprofen.
What are ibuprofen and paracetamol?
Paracetamol or acetaminophen is marketed as Gelocatil, Frenadol and Panadol, among other names. It is the most used medication in Europe and the United States to relieve pain and fever, especially if they are mild.
Although its mechanism of action is not known in detail, It is considered one of the most effective medications and with fewer risks than exist , except in cases of overdose.
Ibuprofen, such as diclofenac (Voltarén) or dexketoprofen (Enantyum), is part of the group of drugs known as "non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs" (NSAIDs), which have analgesic and antipyretic effects.
Ibuprofen stands out among NSAIDs due to its lower side effects , although it does not stop being relatively aggressive with the stomach, the heart and the kidneys. We can find this medication under many commercial names, including Espidifen, Advil or Dalsy.
What are they for?
Many people use paracetamol and ibuprofen interchangeably to treat symptoms of the same type, especially pain and fever, since both drugs produce similar effects.
Paracetamol is recommended as a treatment for minor headaches , of molars, muscles and bones. It is also useful to relieve the discomfort associated with the cold and the flu.
This medication is also frequently used to enhance the analgesic effects of opiates such as codeine, which are much more potent in the treatment of intense pain such as those caused by surgical operations or by some types of cancer.
On the other hand, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs are used to treat all types of pain , especially those that are caused by inflammations, such as arthritis. Even though it is a potent anti-inflammatory, the effects of ibuprofen in this sense are lower than those of other NSAIDs, which also explains its greater tolerability.
- Related article: "The 7 types of migraine (characteristics and causes)"
Is it better to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen?
Although the uses of ibuprofen and paracetamol overlap to some degree, the efficacy of each of these medications varies depending on the type of symptom to which we refer.
1. To lower the fever
Ibuprofen is better than paracetamol to lower intense fever . While ibuprofen has demonstrated antipyretic effects, it is not so clear that paracetamol is effective beyond the reduction of pain and mild fever.
According to studies, it is especially doubtful that acetaminophen reduces fever in children, so in these cases ibuprofen is the first choice medication.
2. For the headache
Taking paracetamol alone or with caffeine is very effective in treating tension or migraine headaches . Although ibuprofen may also help reduce this type of pain, acetaminophen is considered more effective because it has neurological effects. However, the greater potency of ibuprofen can compensate this disadvantage in case of intense pain.
3. For sore throat, cold and flu
Acetaminophen is usually more advisable to treat the symptoms of cold and flu , as the sore throat, because in general it carries less risk than ibuprofen, so it is advisable to opt for this medication when we want to treat virtually any mild or moderate discomfort.
5. For toothache
Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs such as Voltarén are very effective in treating dental pain and are considered the medication of choice for toothache and the one that occurs after dental operations. This is due to its anti-inflammatory effects.
Combining ibuprofen and paracetamol can be useful to treat intense pains of this type that do not improve only with ibuprofen. It is also recommended to take only paracetamol in case the person has stomach problems such as ulcers.
6. For the hangover
Although paracetamol is generally recommended for headaches, hangover is a special case: as it occurs due to alcohol consumption and paracetamol potentiates its negative effects, taking it in these cases can be counterproductive. So, it is recommended to opt for ibuprofen to combat the hangover .
7. As anti-inflammatory
Although both medications are analgesic, only ibuprofen has significant anti-inflammatory effects . Paracetamol has not been shown to be effective in combating inflammation, but pain caused by it.
This means that in case of inflammatory pains ibuprofen attacks the cause of the problem, while paracetamol has more superficial effects.
8. For postoperative pain
Both medications are effective in treating pain caused by surgical operations. In these cases, acetaminophen is usually used in conjunction with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or codeine. or other opioids, as we have previously said.
9. For menstrual pain
Again, the anti-inflammatory effects of ibuprofen make it superior to paracetamol in cases such as menstrual pain . Paracetamol has a superficial effect for inflammatory pain, although being less aggressive than ibuprofen it may make sense to take it for menstrual pain if it is mild.
10. For joint pain
Paracetamol is effective in relieving pain caused by joint problems, but as we have said, it does not reduce the inflammation that this pain causes, while ibuprofen does.
So, It is recommended to take ibuprofen for joint pain caused by inflammation , such as arthritis, sprains and strains.
Contraindications and side effects
Ibuprofen should not be taken during pregnancy as it has been shown to be harmful to the baby during the third trimester, at a minimum. Nor is it recommended to consume it during breastfeeding. Instead, it does not seem to involve any risk taking acetaminophen during pregnancy and lactation .
Paracetamol has the problem that the effective dose is close to the dose from which it can cause an overdose. It is dangerous to mix acetaminophen with alcohol because it increases its toxicity and the risk of suffering adverse effects.
The side effects of these medications also differ. Ibuprofen is aggressive to the stomach, so it should be taken with food and even combined with medications that protect this organ. Paracetamol does not affect the stomach but in the long term it can damage the liver to a greater extent than ibuprofen.
Neither acetaminophen nor ibuprofen should be consumed regularly due to their potential long-term side effects.
Although in general when in doubt we should use paracetamol because it is less aggressive than ibuprofen, it also has fewer uses. Remember that the effects of ibuprofen are superior because in addition to being useful to relieve pain and fever also reduces inflammation, unlike paracetamol.
Likewise, When we want to take one of these two drugs, it is important to take into account its side effects : if we have liver problems we should avoid taking paracetamol and if we are more worried about damaging the stomach it is advised not to take ibuprofen or take it together with a stomach protector.