- Ibuprofen and paracetamol have different mechanisms of action.
- Paracetamol is a commonly used painkiller with minimal side effects.
- Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug effective for inflammation-related pain.
- Paracetamol has few side effects, while ibuprofen may cause headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and other complications.
- Start with paracetamol for general pain, and if ineffective, try ibuprofen. Consult a healthcare professional for prolonged use or if taking other medications.
If you open up any medicine cabinet in a suburban house or even the nearest handbag, the odds are pretty good that you’ll find ibuprofen or paracetamol – often both. These two painkillers are among the most common medications in the world, and both are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. But how do you weigh up ibuprofen vs paracetamol when choosing a painkiller?
Many people regard the two as roughly the same and simply grab the first paracetamol or ibuprofen Woolworths has on the shelf when they walk in. But are there differences that make one better than the other in some circumstances? How would we go about comparing ibuprofen vs paracetamol, and when is it best to use one or the other?
Aren’t Ibuprofen And Paracetamol The Same?
No. Although they have similar effects and people often treat them interchangeably, the two are actually very different drugs with subtly different strengths and weaknesses. Your body deals with each differently – paracetamol is processed in the liver, while ibuprofen is metabolised in the kidneys – and they work by different mechanisms.
What Is Paracetamol?
Paracetamol is one of the world’s most widespread and commonly used painkillers, available over-the-counter in most countries and prescribed by doctors millions of times a year. Sometimes known as acetaminophen, the actual mechanics of how paracetamol works are not totally understood at this point. But the fact that it’s effective at reducing pain and controlling fever is well documented and proven.
What we do understand about paracetamol suggests it most likely blocks the pathways in your nervous system that carry pain messages, meaning those signals can’t get to your brain as easily. Some of these chemicals are also involved in causing fever within the body, which is why it is effective for bringing down a high body temperature.
Paracetamol is available in various forms – including intravenous injection and syrup form for children, but tablets and capsules (taken orally) are the most common. In appropriate quantities, it’s suitable for children as young as one month old – although care should always be taken and dosage instructions strictly followed.
Unlike many medications, paracetamol does not need to be taken with food to be effective, or to avoid an upset stomach.
One of the reasons paracetamol is so widely used is that it’s known to have very few side effects. Most people can safely take paracetamol, including very young children (down to 1-month-old) and pregnant women – in fact it’s the painkiller of choice for pregnancy.
There are occasional reports of very rare side effects, including:
- Allergic reactions
- Drug-induced fever
- Infection / inflammation of the liver (also known as hepatitis)
- Reduced red & white blood cells and platelets (also known as pancytopenia )
- Reduced neutrophils in the blood (also known as neutropenia)
- Reduced thrombocytes in the blood (also known as thrombocytopenia)
You can seek medical advice if you suffer any of these side effects. But these symptoms occur very rarely.
If you have liver or kidney problems, it’s worth consulting a doctor before taking paracetamol, as it’s predominantly processed and broken down by the liver.
Paracetamol does not normally interact badly with other medications, but there are a few to be wary of. In particular, avoid taking paracetamol if you’re also taking:
- Warfarin (a blood thinner)
- Metoclopramide (for heartburn, nausea or vomiting)
- Carbamazepine (for epilepsy or nerve pain)
- Phenytoin (for epilepsy)
An overdose of paracetamol is not something you want to mess around with!
Probably the primary risk factor for taking paracetamol is the risk of hepatotoxicity (toxicity of the liver) if you take too much. This normally only happens in the case of a serious overdose (like someone taking a mouthful of paracetamol tablets), or a large dose taken regularly for several days. As such, it’s very important to keep to the recommended doses, even when in significant pain. Hepatotoxicity is not a pleasant experience, and can lead to permanent liver damage and even death.
Before taking paracetamol, check if any other medication you’re taking has paracetamol in it – such as cold and flu medications, where it’s commonly used. Accidentally double dosing by taking paracetamol along with one of these other medications is not uncommon.
If you or someone near you is found to have taken a large dose of paracetamol (accidentally or otherwise), you should call the Poisons Information Centre (131 126), or get them to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible. Although the overdose may show no symptoms initially (only causing nausea, vomiting, sweating, and abdominal pain later on), you shouldn’t wait – seek emergency medical assistance immediately and provide basic emergency life support. By the time the symptoms show, the damage may already be done, especially away from urban areas where wilderness first aid needs to be administered.
Is Panadol Paracetamol?
Yes. Or, more precisely, Panadol is a common brand of paracetamol. Other common Australian brands include Hedanol, Herron Paracetamol, Panamax, Chemist Own Paracetamol and Dymadon. Internationally there are many different brands, such as Tylenol (most common in the US). Paracetamol may also be one element of more complex medications, such as Codral Cold & Flu (which also contains phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine).
While these brands may differ in the exact content of their tablets, the active ingredient (paracetamol) is exactly the same. This means that provided the dosage (shown on the packet) is the same, their effects will be identical.
What Is Ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen is another incredibly common painkiller medication, and – like paracetamol – it is widely available throughout the world as an over-the-counter medication. Ibuprofen is what’s known as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (often shortened to NSAID). The way ibuprofen works is far better understood than with paracetamol – it temporarily stops the production of compounds called prostaglandins. These compounds do a number of things within the body, including causing inflammation. By suppressing these, ibuprofen lessens pain and eases inflammation – which are natural parts of the body’s healing process but not always helpful.
Because ibuprofen has a strong anti-inflammatory effect, it is more effective than paracetamol at controlling certain types of pain, including rheumatoid arthritis, period pain, and muscular injuries.
Ibuprofen is also available in a variety of forms. While tablets and capsules are most common, it can also be obtained as a syrup for children (three months and older) and as a gel to be applied to the skin to target a specific injury. As with paracetamol, it’s always wise to follow dosage instructions carefully.
Generally, it is recommended to take ibuprofen with food or at least a glass of milk. Taking it on an empty belly is a good way to give yourself an upset stomach.
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Ibuprofen does sometimes have side effects associated with it. These don’t affect everyone, but when taking ibuprofen, some people may experience some of the following:
- Gastrointestinal ulcers
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
There are other potential side effects, but these are the most common.
There are many drugs that ibuprofen interacts with and potentially have harmful side effects if used together. These include:
- ACE Inhibitors
- Aldosterone antagonists
- Calcineurin inhibitors
- Loop diuretics
- Prostaglandin analogues
- Thiazide diuretics
As a general rule, if you’re on any other kind of medication, it’s wise to check with your doctor – or a pharmacist – that the two are safe to take together.
Is Ibuprofen A Blood Thinner?
Not technically, but it does have similar effects to a blood thinner – slowing down clotting and potentially making healing of wounds slower. This can also intensify the effects of actual blood thinning medication or medical conditions which thin the blood. You should be careful taking ibuprofen with any of these conditions or medications and only do so on the advice of a doctor.
It’s important to follow the recommended dosage when using painkillers.
It is possible to overdose on ibuprofen. Fortunately, this is very rarely fatal, and the symptoms are generally less extreme than those of hepatotoxicity due to paracetamol overdose. It can cause kidney failure in some cases, although this is not common. Milder symptoms of an ibuprofen overdose could include tinnitus (ringing in the ears), heartburn, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, stomach pain, rashes, blurred vision or sweating.
In some cases, an overdose might cause more severe symptoms, including severe headache, slow or difficult breathing, convulsions, seizures, hypotension (low blood pressure), little to no urine production or even slipping into a coma.
If you see these symptoms and suspect they might be related to an overdose of ibuprofen, contact the Poisons Information Centre (131 126) for advice on what to do.
Is Nurofen Ibuprofen?
Yes, Neurofen is one of many commercial brands of ibuprofen. Other common Australian brands include Advil, Panafen, and Hedafen. As with paracetamol, provided the tablets have the same quantity of ibuprofen, the effects will be the same regardless of the brand.
Difference Between Ibuprofen And Paracetamol
Paracetamol and ibuprofen are two different drugs that happen to have similar effects. Both control fever and suppress pain by limiting the production of prostaglandins in the brain (as best we can tell). But when comparing ibuprofen vs paracetamol, it quickly becomes apparent that they work by different methods, are processed by different organs, have different side effects, different interactions with other drugs, and subtly different benefits.
Broadly speaking, paracetamol is a good all-purpose painkiller with minimal side effects and negative interactions. While we don’t 100% understand how it works, its effectiveness is well proven for relieving pain and fever, and it’s safe for most people – including very young children and pregnant mothers. However, it’s important to follow recommended dosages, as the consequences of overdose – particularly over several days – are quite serious.
Taking ibuprofen has slightly more potential issues – more chance of side effects and more conflicts with other medicine. But it’s also better at controlling inflammation-related pain, making it far more effective in some cases.
Ibuprofen VS Paracetamol – Which Should I Be Taking?
“My head hurts! Just tell me what I should take.”
If you’re simply looking for a general painkiller – perhaps for a headache – then the general opinion of the medical world is to start with paracetamol and move to ibuprofen if it doesn’t do the job. This is because paracetamol has so few side effects and interactions with other medications – it’s one of the safest (in correct doses) and most versatile painkillers available. It can also be taken with or without food, meaning you can generally take it wherever and whenever you have water handy.
If it proves to be ineffective (or less effective than hoped) then it may be worth trying ibuprofen as an alternative. Although there are more potential side effects and issues, and it should be taken with food (or at least a glass of milk), ibuprofen is more effective against certain injuries and illnesses that involve inflammation, meaning it might work better.
For certain medical issues – such as muscular injuries or period pain – it’s sensible to start with ibuprofen, as it’s proved far more effective at controlling these types of pain.
In the case of pregnancy, it’s always best to stick with paracetamol. In fact, most doctors explicitly forbid using ibuprofen in the third trimester of pregnancy as studies have shown it to cause miscarriages or other harm to the baby.
Is It Safe To Take Both Ibuprofen And Paracetamol?
Yes, it is – provided you’re following the recommended dosages for each. Ibuprofen and paracetamol don’t interact in any way, so they work independently of each other. This means that if you’re suffering acute pain, it’s actually far safer to take a recommended dose of both painkillers than trying to take a larger dose of either one (which can be very dangerous, particularly with paracetamol).
There are even products that combine both into one tablet – such as Nuromol, Mersynofen and Maxigesic.
Another option if you need consistent pain relief is to stagger the two. Most painkillers require 4-6 hours between doses for safety, meaning the period when the last dose is wearing off can be uncomfortable. But it is possible to take a dose of paracetamol, then a dose of ibuprofen after 3 hours, then a dose of paracetamol 3 hours after that – and so on. This provides better ongoing pain relief.
You should always note, however, that both paracetamol and ibuprofen are intended only for short-term use. If pain persists longer than 2-3 days, you should be consulting a doctor as soon as possible to find an alternative solution.
Is Ibuprofen Or Paracetamol Better For Children?
Comparing ibuprofen vs paracetamol for treating a child is similar to choosing for an adult – each medicine has different advantages and disadvantages. In this case, you’re generally comparing medicated syrups administered orally by syringe (provided with the bottle), but many of the same principles apply. Once again, if you’re unsure, starting with paracetamol is wise as it has fewer potential complications. It can also be taken without food, which makes it useful for those late-night sick-and-tearful moments.
However, for pain related to inflammation (such as growing pains), ibuprofen can sometimes be more effective. And it’s also worth noting that ibuprofen works a little quicker than paracetamol – taking effect in around 15 minutes, as opposed to paracetamol which takes closer to 30.
When administering painkillers to children, it is always important to read the dosage instructions carefully. Dosages will generally be given by age, and by weight – and weight is generally the more appropriate indicator of dosage (provided the child is old enough to take the medicine at all). Check the bottle every time, as sometimes similar-looking bottles will have different amounts of the active ingredient – never just go from memory when working out dosages.
Know Your Way Around Painkillers
(And What To Do In An Emergency)
One of the most likely places you’ll encounter ibuprofen or paracetamol will be the nearest first aid kit, which will generally contain one or the other – or possibly both. Knowing how to compare ibuprofen vs paracetamol is one thing, but would you know what situations painkillers are appropriate? Would you know whether to use paracetamol for someone suffering a spider bite, for example? Is ibuprofen or paracetamol better for a mild head injury? Would painkillers be good for someone suffering potential shock?
To go beyond what to take for a headache and learn how to respond to more serious emergencies (and what medicines might help), the best way is to invest a little time in first aid and CPR courses online. They only take a day to complete, it’ll cost you less than a tank of fuel might nowadays, and you could literally save a life.
Is Panadol more effective than ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen and paracetamol exhibit comparable efficacy in relieving pain and reducing fever. However, ibuprofen possesses additional anti-inflammatory properties, effectively mitigating symptoms such as redness and swelling. Consequently, it is commonly employed in the treatment of adult joint and muscle discomfort.
Is paracetamol or Nurofen better for pain?
Paracetamol is an effective option for addressing mild to moderate pain and fever specifically in children. While it provides limited relief for inflammation-related symptoms like redness and swelling, it remains valuable for its primary pain and fever-reducing properties. On the other hand, ibuprofen, as one of the widely utilized non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), is frequently recommended for the management of mild to moderate pain and fever in children. Apart from its ability to alleviate pain and reduce fever, ibuprofen is particularly advantageous due to its notable anti-inflammatory effects, including the ability to mitigate redness and swelling.
Which is stronger, ibuprofen or paracetamol?
When comparing the strength of ibuprofen and paracetamol, it’s important to note that they have different mechanisms of action and may be more effective for different types of pain. Ibuprofen is generally considered to have stronger anti-inflammatory properties compared to paracetamol. This means that ibuprofen may be more effective in reducing pain associated with inflammation, such as joint and muscle pain.
On the other hand, paracetamol is typically better at reducing pain and fever that are not primarily caused by inflammation. It is commonly used for mild to moderate pain relief and fever reduction in various conditions.
It’s worth mentioning that the perceived strength of a medication can vary depending on individual factors and the specific condition being treated. It is always advisable to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice and appropriate dosage recommendations based on your specific needs.
What’s better for headaches, Panadol or Nurofen?
Nurofen is known to provide faster pain relief and is considered more effective than Panadol (which contains paracetamol) specifically for common headaches. Its superiority over Panadol and paracetamol lies in its ability to deliver more efficient pain relief for this specific type of headache. Nurofen’s formulation and mechanism of action make it a preferred option for individuals seeking relief from common headaches. It is important to note that individual responses to medications can vary, so consulting a healthcare professional for personalised advice is always recommended.