Most of us use regular, over the counter (OTC) headache medicine, without considering which ingredients are best for us individually. In reality, each person is affected differently by ingredients such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, caffeine, and naproxen sodium. Effectiveness will also depend on the type of headache–whether it’s a tension headache or migraine.
There are many kinds of headache medicines on the market, all promising fast results. They also all differ in price, which can be very confusing. Today, we’ll teach you how to choose the best headache medicine for you, with product reviews, prices, and comparisons. Hope this helps!
How to Choose Headache Medication – Buying Guide
When choosing an over the counter (OTC) headache medicine, it’s important to choose ingredients that match your level and type of pain. Figure out which medicine best fits your symptoms by referencing the following points.
Understand What Different Ingredients Do and Choose Something with Appropriate Strength
There are 5 main ingredients in OTC headache medicines on the market: aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and a combination of aspirin + acetaminophen + caffeine. Each ingredient comes with its own side effects, so always read the label.
During Times You’re Unable to Rest or Work, Select “Fast-Acting” Medications
Acetaminophen, apart from being better for your stomach, is advantageous in how fast it works to relieve your headaches. Many headache medicines will say they are fast-acting. See if they have acetaminophen in them so you know you’ve made the right choice if you need immediate relief.
Note: Acetaminophen is a common ingredient in cold medicine. If you’re already taking cold medicine, check the ingredients before taking any additional acetaminophen, as a combination of the two would lead to an overdose.
Three other fast-acting ingredients are ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and caffeine. Ibuprofen and naproxen sodium both work within 30 minutes. But while Aleve (naproxen sodium) offers pills that are strong enough to last 12 hours, ibuprofen pills tend to wear off more quickly.
Aspirin is also great because it’s a fast-acting analgesic (pain reliever) that can wipe away your headache immediately during work or before a night out on the town. And why is caffeine a third fast-acting ingredient in headache medicine? Right before a headache, blood vessels enlarge. Caffeine causes these vessels to narrow–blood flow is restricted and your headache goes away.
Whichever primary ingredient you choose, keep in mind that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen sodium can cause ulcers in the stomach or irritation of the stomach lining, so use these with caution and always talk with your doctor about any concerns.
To Prevent Stomach Issues, Use Stomach-Friendly Headache Medicines
By choosing a stomach-friendly headache medicine, you’ll avoid sacrificing a healthy stomach just to take away a headache. Your best bet is to select a medicine with acetaminophen as a main ingredient, although there’s “safety-coated” aspirin available as well (in the list below!).
For stronger relief, your doctor can prescribe you Fentanyl, whose main ingredient is ethenzamide. Remember always that ethenzamide is an extremely powerful ingredient and should only be used as directed and when prescribed by a physician. Since it’s not an OTC medication, it won’t be discussed more in detail here, so speak to your physician if you have any questions.
If You Have Both Pain and a Fever, We Recommend “Antipyretic Analgesics”
Big words, simple idea: “antipyretic” merely means “preventing or reducing fever.” These medicines are NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. NSAIDs will not only take away your pain, but also reduce your fever, as they are key anti-inflammatory agents. Big names in ibuprofen are Motrin and Advil; Bayer is a top name in aspirin.
Ibuprofen, since it’s a fever-reducer, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic, is a triple threat for your headaches because it also reduces fever and swelling. Just remember to take with caution, as it’s good for your head but rough on your stomach. Also, don’t take any medication with sleep-inducing ingredients (read the label), as that would affect your ability to work and drive.
Choose Between Ingredients According to Your Symptoms
Although all the ingredients mentioned are analgesics (pain relievers), you need to focus on your symptoms to pick the right medicine. If you want to cure a headache only, or if it’s just a regular headache (versus tension or migraine, for example), you can choose freely among medications containing the ingredients mentioned above.
However, medications with both sedatives and analgesics cause drowsiness. If you’re going to be taking medication at school or work, choose one with no sedatives in the ingredients list. Also, if you’re taking a headache medicine and your stomach becomes painful, start taking antacids and consult with your doctor about switching to a different headache medicine.
Antacids will suppress stomach upset. The main ingredients are calcium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, aluminum hydroxide and/or sodium bicarbonate–check the ingredient list before taking to make sure there won’t be any unwelcome side effects.
Always Consult with Your Doctor First If You Are or Could Be Pregnant
Unfortunately, pregnant women cannot take many headache medications. The ingredients could negatively affect the fetus’s development, so consult with your doctor before taking any new medications. Even after giving birth, small amounts of medication often make their way into breast milk, so take only safe medications while you’re nursing your child.
For Children, Always Check Age-Appropriate Dosages
Child-friendly medicines aren’t just for children because of the appealing flavors, but also because they take into account the appropriate dosage a child needs of a certain medicine.
Before giving headache medicine to a child, check the label. This will typically tell you if you can give a smaller amount of a medicine to a child, or if you need to consult a doctor first, or if you need the children’s version of the medication. Regular medicines take into account the body size of an adult, and so should never be given freely to children.
Top 10 Headache Medicines to Buy Online
The following recommendations are all for adults and available over the counter, so be sure to do additional searches if you need a children’s version, and speak to your doctor if you need a prescription for something stronger.
10. BC Aspirin Powder
Quick Relief for Headaches and Body Aches
BC Aspirin Powder is great because it’s fast-acting, convenient, and portable. It does a great job of relieving general headaches, and comes in flavors like cherry and regular. Not only that, but its powder form is an alternative for those who cannot swallow pills or capsules.
As with all aspirins, the general side effects could include heartburn, ulcers, or gastrointestinal bleeding. However, this is typically only when aspirin is overused; discuss any side effect concerns with your doctor, and never give regular aspirin to children.
9. Equate Headache Relief
Quick and Affordable Headache Relief
When it comes to dependable headache relief, you don’t have to go just to name brands. Walmart’s Equate line features solid products, like this one for headaches. A combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine, it works hard to eliminate regular and tension headaches.
The downside of this item is they’re caplets, so perhaps not the best option for those who struggle swallowing pills. However, a bit of persistence and a lot of water might make this worth the effort. Talk with your doctor if you’re worried about side effects from any of the ingredients.
8. Sudafed Pressure + Pain
Small Caplets Shoo Away Sinus Headaches
The range of headaches is extensive, so you can’t take just any old medication for any old headache. Goody’s and Equate are fine for general headaches, but for sinus headaches you’ll want Sudafed Pressure + Pain, which will go to the source of your headaches–your sinuses–to effectively clear things up.
As caplets, some say these are easier to swallow than capsules, but may still present an issue for people with issues forcing things down their throats. The main ingredient, acetaminophen, doesn’t have many side effects, but be sure to take as directed to avoid liver damage.
7. Goody’s Extra Strength Powder
Easily Dissolving Powder Works Fast
Here’s another great solution for those wanting to avoid pills–like BC Powder, Goody’s comes in a form that easily dissolves in water or your favorite beverage. It comes in flavors like cool orange, or you can try the regular, which is pretty tasteless.
Like BC Powder, Goody’s also contains acetaminophen, caffeine, and aspirin, which makes it a no-go for anyone with stomach issues. If you’re sensitive to artificial sweeteners, Goody’s probably isn’t your choice, as the powder contains two of them.
6. Excedrin Migraine
Trusty Name Brand Keeps Working Strong
Trusted by many, Excedrin Migraine is another acetaminophen + caffeine + aspirin option. The great news is that this option comes not only in caplet form, but also as gel tabs and coated capsules. But if you have a regular headache, get something else–as its name suggests, this one is primarily for migraines (and tension headaches).
Remember to stay away from this product if you have stomach issues, and perhaps try Goody’s or BC if you really want to avoid the pills. But if you can get past that, Excedrin is one of the most trusted names on the market.
5. Aleve Liquid Gels with Naproxen Sodium
Easy-to-Swallow Gel Tabs Bring Quick Relief
Aleve is probably one of our favorite headache medications because it works so well. Not only that, but the gel tabs are so small that anyone should be fine swallowing them. And the best part? Each pill is strong enough to last 12 hours! Forget taking pills every 6 hours for headache relief.
There’s not much to criticize here, although you should be careful ordering online. Since the tabs are filled with liquid, you run the risk of all of them melting together on the trip to your house. You’ll also want to be more careful to keep these at room temperature always, for the same reason.
4. Motrin IB
Tough Pain Reliever and Fever Reducer
Another staple you’ll find in the headache aisle and a top seller online, Motrin is a great option for general headaches. If your headache is stronger, try Motrin Extra Strength, which still won’t provide migraine-level relief but works well for your tougher days.
The main ingredient in Motrin is ibuprofen, which should be avoided by anyone with stomach issues. Ibuprofen can also cause nausea, vomiting or rash, so stop using and talk with your doctor if you develop any of these, and use only as directed.
Safety-Coated Tablets Easy on the Stomach
Since it’s caffeine-free, Bayer is ideal for those sensitive to caffeine. It works fast and comes in easy-to-swallow safety-coated tablets that help protect your stomach lining. And if safety-coated isn’t important to you, Bayer has other regular-coated options.
The biggest downside of Bayer 325 mg is its delayed action–although it works very well, it does take time for you to feel its effects. Because of that, if you feel a crushing headache coming on, you might want to try another option first.
2. Tylenol Extra Strength
Trusted Name, Expected Relief
One of the most popular items on the market, Tylenol works fast and comes in several forms. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or aspirin, Tylenol is a good option for you. Used too much, Tylenol can cause liver issues, so just use as directed and don’t overdo it.
Some studies have linked Tylenol to high blood pressure in women, so exercise extra caution if you’re female and/orgenerally have higher blood pressure. Other than that, there’s not much bad to say about Tylenol, evidenced by its high sales performance and rankings on the market.
Effective Pain Relief with a 30-Year Track Record
For many, it’s hard to say which is better, Tylenol or Advil. It mostly depends on whether you deal better with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). With many saying Advil is the #1 pain reliever on the market, it won the #1 slot in this recommendation list, also.
The biggest drawback for Advil is the same for any ibuprofen product–the stomach issues ibuprofen can cause. Apart from that, Advil works fast, is long-lasting, and the small circular pills are much easier to swallow than those from other brands. It’s a dependable choice for regular to slightly more severe headaches.
Things to Look Out for When Using Headache Medication
Finally, let’s go over how to be careful when taking pills or powder for headaches. Since these products can be obtained so easily, they can also easily be misused. Here’s what you need to know to take this medicine correctly.
Don’t Overdose, and Drink Water
The most important thing to remember when taking any medication is: pay attention to the label. To avoid an overdose, take only the amount of pills recommended, and only as often as the label says. And be careful what you take it with–your safest bet is water, as alcohol, coffee, or juice with pain medication could cause serious side effects such as excessively slowed breathing or kidney issues.
If you feel a headache coming on after drinking coffee, wait at least 30 minutes before taking headache medication. Since it takes about 45 minutes for caffeine to be absorbed into the small intestine, you need to wait that long before taking medicine for effects to really kick in.
Take Medicine at Pain Onset, But Be Careful with Migraines
Headache pain tends to worsen and spread with time. Take medicine early, as a little pain will take less time to go away than more severe pain. This is one time where it’s better to take action fast than tough it out.
Just take care if you have migraines. Most headache medicines aren’t suited for migraines; instead, they’re typically directed towards “tension headaches.” Tension headaches are often caused by decreased blood flow and stress, etc., whereas the cause and effects of migraines are a bit different. For this reason, look for medicines marked “migraine,” such as Excedrin Migraine above.
So this sums up our list of highly recommended over the counter headache medicines. To ensure quality options for you, we’ve selected medicines with varying ingredients as well as given you an option of capsule, caplet, or powder. We hope that this list is helpful when you are selecting your next headache medicine.
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