A woman looks at over-the-counter pain relief medications.
Find the right over-the-counter pain med with help from a pharmacist who has been there. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Your head is pounding and you just can’t take it anymore.

You head to the neighborhood drug store for any pill that will help. The options available at your fingertips are intimidating and confusing.

Should you select Aleve? Advil? Tylenol? Excedrin? Maybe Motrin? Or would the generic store brand work just as well? It’s great to have so many choices, but which one is right for you?

“It’s simple, really,” said Ryan Foster, director of pharmacy for Spectrum Health. “Ask the pharmacist. They’re there to help.”

A pharmacist himself, Foster understands the confusion regarding over-the-counter analgesics or painkillers.

“There are all kinds of painkillers out there being sold to consumers as the best for various ailments,” he said. “People just want to make the right choice for themselves and their families. Many people don’t know that making the wrong choice, beyond not being effective, could actually be harmful.”

Factors to consider include the person’s age, weight, diet and other medications he or she may be taking.

If there isn’t a pharmacist nearby to consult, Foster suggested reading the label carefully.

  • Find out exactly what you are taking. “Look for the active ingredients like acetaminophen, aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen. They’re marketed as painkillers, but they’re not the same in how they work once you take them.”
  • Make sure to follow the dosage instruction on the labels. “People may get into trouble by going over the total daily dose recommendation—taking too much, too soon.”
  • Check the expiration date. “Drugs do expire, especially these medications, which tend to sit on the shelf way past their expirations dates. They begin to break down and lose effectiveness so be sure to dispose of expired medications.”

Foster offers this cheat sheet that you may want to save and keep close to the home medicine cabinet:

  • Acetaminophen – fevers
  • Aspirin – headache
  • Ibuprofen – fever, minor aches and pains
  • Naproxen – minor aches and pains

Some people try to combine medications—mixing Tylenol and Ibuprofen, for example. Proceed with caution, Foster said, because you can easily overdose for your needs. He warns against the overuse of any drug for fear of side effects. For example, acetaminophen overuse can lead to liver damage, particularly when combined with alcohol.

“With all of the different brands, generic and combination products available over the counter, it is easy to make a hasty decision,” Foster said. “These drugs may interact with other drugs you are already taking and you may not notice the interaction right away. Don’t hesitate to ask a pharmacist to help. And make sure to have on hand a list of the medications you’re currently taking so that the pharmacist can make an informed recommendation.”