You've probably taken these medications for occasional aches and pains, to reduce a fever, or help with a headache. Acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ASA, ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, celecoxib), also called NSAIDs, are commonly used pain relievers that are effective for most types of mild to moderate pain. Some of these medications are available without a prescription, while others require a prescription from your doctor.


Acetaminophen is safe and effective for mild-to-moderate pain when used appropriately. It is commonly used to treat headaches, muscle aches, fever, and osteoarthritis. It can be found on its own or in combination with other medications. If you buy products for pain, fever, or colds at the pharmacy without a prescription, it's important to read the product's ingredients list. Many products contain acetaminophen, and if you're taking more than one product, you may end up getting more than you bargained for.

Too much acetaminophen can be hard on your liver, so never take more of it than recommended by your doctor or pharmacist. People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are at a higher risk of experiencing liver problems from acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is available in tablet, liquid and suppository form.


NSAIDs help reduce pain and inflammation and can be used to treat mild to moderate pain associated with headaches, muscle aches, fever, back pain, menstrual cramps and arthritis. However, NSAIDs can irritate the lining of the stomach, cause stomach upset, and may also cause stomach ulcers and bleeding. Ulcers are more often seen with high doses, but can happen to anyone.

If you are at risk of a stomach ulcer (e.g., you have had stomach bleeding in the past, have diabetes, smoke, are a senior), your doctor may prescribe another medication (e.g., misoprostol, omeprazole, pantoprazole, esomeprazole) to protect your stomach from these effects. NSAIDs may also cause problems with your kidneys and heart when used for a long time. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking NSAIDs.

NSAIDs are available in tablet, liquid, and suppository form. Some NSAIDs are available as a topical gel that is applied to the skin around the affected area. NSAIDs applied to the skin appear to have fewer side effects. Injectable NSAIDs are also available, but are usually given in the hospital.

Topical (applied to the skin) medications

Some medications can be applied to the skin as creams, gels, or rubs. Some of these medications contain salicylates that help to reduce pain. Others contain counterirritants such as menthol or camphor that stimulate nerves with hot and cold sensations to reduce the perception of pain. These products are usually used for mild to moderate muscle aches and pains caused by minor injuries or arthritis. The most common side effect associated with these products is skin irritation, but those that contain salicylates can have additional side effects.

Anesthetics such as lidocaine can be applied to the skin to help certain types of pain, and capsaicin cream is an option for treating pain due to arthritis and neuropathic pain. However, this cream must be used several times a day and causes a burning sensation, especially at the start of treatment, which may not be suitable for everyone.

There are many other medications that can be used to help with pain management including opioids and adjuvant medications such as antidepressants and antiseizure medications.