Painkillers 101: A GP’s Guide To Dealing With Aches & Pains

Painkillers 101: A GP’s Guide To Dealing With Aches & Pains

Your medicine cabinet would be considered fairly ill-equipped if it didn’t contain some painkillers – especially when statistics show Britons ingest, on average, nearly 400 painkillers every year, with women twice as likely as men to reach for them. But do you really know which you should take when and what the side effects might be? Here a leading GP breaks it down.


What is it? Paracetamol is a non-opioid painkiller and fever reducer that belongs to a group of medicines known as analgesics. It works by blocking an enzyme in the brain involved in the transmission of pain.

When should you take it? Use it to ease mild to moderate pain – think headaches, toothache, muscle and joint pains, period pains and hangovers. Pregnant women should generally take paracetamol instead of ibuprofen. 

Are there any side effects? Paracetamol is unlikely to have serious side effects when taking the recommended dose but taking too much can be very dangerous. Always make sure you aren’t doubling up on your paracetamol dose if you’re taking regular pills alongside something like a cold and flu remedy, such as Lemsip.


What is it? Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug, which works more effectively when there’s clear evidence of an inflammatory cause of pain, such as an injury or arthritis. It works by reducing the hormones in your body that cause pain and swelling.

When should you take it? Use it to treat mild to moderate pain – think migraines, period cramps and toothache. It’s also useful for reducing a high temperature when you have a fever caused by flu. As well as treating pain, it can also reduce inflammation and swelling caused by arthritis or sports injuries.

Are there any side effects? Ibuprofen should always be taken with food and never on an empty stomach. If taken for long periods of time, it can cause an upset stomach.


What is it? Like ibuprofen, aspirin is an anti-inflammatory which blocks pain at the source. Aspirin enters the bloodstream and travels throughout the body but works only where it finds specific molecules, which are produced in response to injury.

When should you take it? Use it to relieve pain and inflammation such as muscular pain as well as sprains, backache, headache, sore throat, toothache and period pain. It can also be used to treat flu-like symptoms and reduce fever in adults. In low doses, it can be used to thin the blood.

Are there any side effects? The NHS says aspirin is less effective than ibuprofen, and is thought to be more likely to cause gastrointestinal side effects.

If You Need Something Stronger, Try Co-Codamol

“If the likes of paracetamol and ibuprofen aren’t enough to take away your pain, then compound painkillers such as co-codamol, which contains paracetamol and low-dose codeine, are available over the counter,” says Dr Eddie Roche, NHS GP and medical director at Push Doctor. “Another option is Nuromol, which contains paracetamol and ibuprofen, and Anadin, which contains paracetamol and aspirin. When these various painkillers are combined, they create compound painkillers that provide more powerful relief by working together, in slightly different ways. For example, combining an anti-inflammatory such as aspirin or ibuprofen with paracetamol will tick two boxes – painkiller and anti-inflammatory,” he says.

Mixing Pain Relief Is Also An Option

According to a recent study, a combination of ibuprofen and paracetamol is the most effective for acute pain, but be careful of taking ibuprofen with other anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or naproxen. “Your pharmacist or doctor can advise you on this,” says Dr Roche. “Just bear in mind that if your pain is bad enough to warrant taking a combination of tablets, then you should consider chatting to your GP.”

Branded Painkillers Aren’t Usually Worth The Money

“Many medicines have two different names – the generic name and the brand name,” explains Dr Roche. “For example, ibuprofen is the generic name for the brand of ibuprofen, Nurofen. The generic versions of drugs contain the same active ingredients as the branded medicines. They are just as effective but much less expensive.” 

Fast-Acting Painkillers Could Be Worth A Go

The words ‘express’, ‘advance’ and ‘fast acting’ on a packet of painkillers may seem like an efficient way to deal with pain, and science shows there could be something behind it. To make these sorts of claims, products labelled with these terms must start to be effective within 30 minutes. So, chances are a fast-acting product will get to work more quickly, although you’ll likely pay more for the premium. Such products can be handy if you’re experiencing acute pain, but if you aren’t in need of urgent relief then stick with a standard version. 

Avoid being lured by products that claim to target the likes of back and period pain. These products tend to be exactly the same as their regular counterparts.

Adding Caffeine Might Help

You may have been tempted by a paracetamol and caffeine blend after a heavy night, and studies show there could be something in it. Research shows caffeine enhances how well painkillers work, with a dose of 100mg or higher allegedly boosting the efficacy of ibuprofen. 

Don’t Waste Time On Targeted Formulas

While some pills contain additional products that speed up the process of getting pain relief into the bloodstream, a painkiller cannot target pain in specific areas of the body, so avoid being lured by products that claim to target the likes of back and period pain. When challenged, some brands claim they offer targeted formulas to help customers know what they need to take for specific ailments, but as these products tend to have the same chemical make-up as their regular counterpart, chances are you’re paying over the odds for exactly the same thing. 

The Recommended Dose Is Always Best

While it can be tempting to pop an extra pill when pain strikes, the experts recommend avoiding this at all costs. “Never take more than the recommended dose as this will increase the risk of serious side effects and could potentially be harmful,” warns Dr Roche. “It’s generally advised to take the lowest needed dose for the shortest time possible. You shouldn’t use painkillers for more than ten consecutive days unless you’ve had advice from your doctor. The same goes for gels, mousses and sprays – don’t take them for more than two weeks unless you’ve been told to do so.”

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DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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