The Dangers of Over-the-Counter Painkillers

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A headache. Back pain. Menstrual cramps. A number of minor ailments send us reaching into the medicine cabinet daily for those over-the-counter painkillers: ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen. Taking frequent doses of any over-the-counter painkiller, even small doses, is hard on the liver and can lead to long-term health problems, from stomach bleeding to increased risk of stroke. We take billions of doses of over-the-counter painkillers every year, but most of us don’t pay attention to the active ingredients in them. Before you pop that pill next time, check the bottle to see what active ingredient your painkiller contains, then check below to read more about its dangers.

For more natural approaches to common ailments, check out the list of natural remedies at the bottom.

What’s in your standard over-the-counter painkiller? Ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin all carry unhealthy side effects. Photo By Andrey Kiselev/Courtesy Fotolia.


A type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), ibuprofen is generally considered safer than other over-the-counter pain killers. But, like all painkillers, caution–and restraint–should be exercised when using. Studies have linked certain types of NSAIDs to a 29 percent increased chance of both non-fatal and fatal strokes. And a recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that the risk of miscarriage is 2.4 times higher for women who take NSAIDs in early pregnancy. Long-term use of NSAIDs is associated with an increased risk of renal cell cancer, and taking NSAIDs is linked to a 45 percent higher chance of death or a recurring heart attack in patients who have recently had heart attacks. Additionally, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs such as naproxen (commonly known as Aleve) can result in bleeding, ulcers and stroke, and can interfere with antidepressants.


People at risk for heart attacks and strokes commonly take a daily dose of aspirin, but how much does it help? A study of 28,000 women over ten years’ time found that taking an average of 100 mg of aspirin every other day only resulted in a 2.2 to 2.4 percent reduction in the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiac disease. Because aspirin is a blood thinner, it increases risk of bleeding. Participants in the study reported bleeding problems such as gastrointestinal bleeding, ulcers and easy bruising. Regular use of all types of painkillers has also been linked to hearing loss in men, especially those under 50. Taking aspirin twice a week carried a 12 percent higher risk of hearing loss, while taking ibuprofen or other NSAIDs had a 21 percent higher risk of hearing loss. In men under 50, those numbers bumped up to 33, 61 and 99 percent, respectively.


Like ibuprofen, acetaminophen (commonly seen in Tylenol) is generally considered safer than aspirin, but taking low, frequent doses of this over-the-counter painkiller can damage the kidney, brain and liver. In fact, acetaminophen is the most common cause of drug-induced liver disease and liver failure in the U.S. and UK. A study of 663 patients who were being treated for liver toxicity at a hospital in Scotland found that 161 of them had taken a “staggered overdose,” or chronic low doses, of acetaminophen for minor complaints such as head, muscle and toothaches. When an excess of acetaminophen ends up in the liver, the body must process it through another pathway, and as a result, produces a toxic compound called NAPQI that can accumulate in the liver and cause damage. Prompted by the high number of liver failure cases tied to an acetaminophen overdose, the FDA asked acetaminophen manufacturers earlier this year to limit the amount of acetaminophen to no more than 325 milligrams per tablet or capsule. Acetaminophen is used in more than 600 over-the-counter and prescription medicines (for prescription drugs, it’s labeled as APAP).

Natural Pain Relief

We take over-the-counter painkillers most often to treat mild problems. Instead of resorting to a pharmaceutical pill, check out these natural remedies for common ailments.

Natural remedies for:

Headaches and migraines


Cramps and other PMS symptoms

Common cold symptoms

More natural remedies for common ailments

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