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Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are drugs commonly recommended for pain relief or fever reduction. While both are effective pain killers, 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 longer 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 drugs 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 well-known remedies such as Tylenol® and Excedrin®. It works by blocking chemicals that send pain messages and cool the body. Ibuprofen, marketed under U.S. brands such as Advil® and Motrin®, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, 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 and poses 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. It can, however, result in liver damage if not taken as directed. Significant liver damage can result if it is taken with alcohol. There are also some drug interaction risks, typically with blood-thinning medications such as Coumadin®.
Ibuprofen is also gentler on the digestive system than aspirin and, because it is an NSAID, is safer than a steroidal drug when taken over a longer term for pain relief. Due to its effective anti-inflammatory properties, it is often recommended for people suffering from chronic pain due to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. There are, however, heart attack and stroke risks for people taking ibuprofen for extended periods of time. People with a history of such conditions should consult a physician before using the drug.
Both medications are also prescribed by doctors, usually in higher doses than are available over the counter, to help relieve more severe pain. Patients with chronic pain due to migraine headaches, arthritis or traumatic injury, for example, may be given higher concentrations of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen for relief of symptoms. Doctors also prescribe these drugs to manage pain associated with diseases like gout or psoriasis.
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are often combined with other non-prescription medications to provide relief for a variety of common health problems. It is advised that people check the labels on such over the counter products, before taking additional pain relievers, to prevent accidental overdose. Drug combinations designed as sleep aids, allergy medications, cold remedies and those that target specific ailments such as menstrual cramps or the flu often contain either ibuprofen or acetaminophen.