What are the differences between acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen?

May 27, 2023

Picking the right pain reliever for your specific needs can be a challenge. With so many options available on the shelf, it’s no wonder people become confused by all of the different brands, ingredients, and marketing messages that promise to cure your every ailment. Fortunately, we’re here to help you break down the differences between these three well-known painkillers: acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen. By the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about which pain reliever is right for you.

What is acetaminophen used for?

Acetaminophen (like Tylenol) is used for minor aches and pains such as headaches and can even be used as a fever reducer. Acetaminophen works in the central nervous system by altering the way the body senses pain. One of the ways doctors explain how acetaminophen works is that it blocks enzymes that produce prostaglandins, which are compounds that signal pain in the body.

Another way that it might work is by activating the cannabinoid system, which is located in the central nervous system, contributing to a pain-relieving effect. The third explanation is that this pill relieves pain by targeting serotonin and influences signals between nerves in the nervous system.

How does aspirin work?

Aspirin is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medicine that is used to relieve pain, fever, and inflammation. Aspirin works by inhibiting an enzyme that helps to form prostaglandins, which are chemicals in our body that produce these symptoms. It is also a potent inhibitor for platelet aggregation, hence it’s use in cardiovascular prevention.

What is ibuprofen?

Ibuprofen (like Advil and Motrin) is an NSAID that’s found in a variety of drugs for pain, fever, and inflammation. Ibuprofen and aspirin work mostly the same. Both inhibit the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals involved in causing pain and inflammation. Because of these effects, it is widely used for arthritis and menstrual pains. Similar to acetaminophen, Ibuprofen can play a role in stomach upset.

Choose better

Understanding the differences between acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen empowers you to choose the pain reliever that suits your needs best. Medication allergy is very important when selecting pain medication as many patients are allergic to aspirin.  Acetaminophen is recommended for minor aches and pains, while ibuprofen is commonly used for menstrual cramps and muscle soreness. It’s important to note that acetaminophen can be found in various cough and cold products, so caution should be taken to avoid excessive consumption when combined with other over-the-counter medications. Aspirin may cause side effects like nausea and stomach pain, and it is not recommended for children and teenagers due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. If you have existing health conditions, consult your doctor or pharmacist for guidance on the most suitable pain reliever. This precaution helps minimize potential risks and side effects.


We hope this information provides some clarity that will help you make more informed decisions next time you’re shopping!


*Sources: University of Tennessee Medical Center, Unity Point Health, National Library of Medicine.


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