A customer looks at the labels of acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

Acetaminophen vs. ibuprofen: Which should you pick?

They’re the most common pain relievers you can buy over the counter at any pharmacy, but acetaminophen and ibuprofen have important differences. So, which one should you use?

Haley Morrissey, a clinical pharmacist for OSF HealthCare, has a general rule of thumb.

“If you have muscle or skeletal pain or inflammation, go with ibuprofen,” Haley said. “If it’s just a regular headache, acetaminophen is good.”

However, everyone reacts differently to drugs, so you may find that one works better for you than the other. And, you should speak with your primary care provider before you start taking either one.

Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are both pain relievers that can reduce fevers. They’re both available in tablet, gel cap and liquid form. So, what’s the difference?

What is acetaminophen used for?

Acetaminophen – whose most popular brand name is Tylenol – has some things it excels at.

“Acetaminophen is great for fevers, headaches and mild to moderate aches and pains,” Haley said.

You can take acetaminophen every 4-6 hours, and the maximum dosage is 4,000 mgs per 24 hours. However, you should speak with your physician about proper dosing for you.

What is ibuprofen used for?

Ibuprofen shares acetaminophen’s ability to prevent your brain from creating the chemicals that help create pain and fever. However, ibuprofen has another function, as well.

Not sure which pain reliever to take?

>Send an OSF MyChart message to your provider

Ibuprofen – more commonly known as Advil or Motrin – is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, which means it helps reduce inflammation and swelling at the source of an injury. Acetaminophen cannot do that.

As with acetaminophen – or any drug, really – you should speak with your health care provider about proper dosing before you begin taking ibuprofen. Ibuprofen can be taken every 4-6 hours, and the maximum dose for a 24-hour period is 1,200 mgs.

It’s important to note that the maximum dose for ibuprofen is much lower than the maximum dose for acetaminophen, so getting them mixed up can be bad for you.

How is acetaminophen bad for you?

Using too much of any medicine can be bad for you, and acetaminophen is no exception.

Acetaminophen is metabolized by the liver, so overdosing or taking large amounts of acetaminophen over an extended period of time can seriously damage your liver. Avoid acetaminophen if you have liver issues.

How is ibuprofen bad for you?

Pregnant women should avoid ibuprofen because it can interfere with the development of their baby. On the other hand, acetaminophen is safe to take when you’re pregnant.

The most common issue with ibuprofen is stomach irritation. It interferes with the chemicals that protect your stomach lining, which can lead to upset stomach or heartburn. If you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or any other stomach issues, you probably should avoid ibuprofen.

While neither pain reliever is a blood thinner, ibuprofen can slow your blood platelets from clotting, which can make bleeding worse. If you are on an anticoagulant, you should probably stick to acetaminophen

Can you take them together?

Because both pain relievers work a little differently, they can safely be taken together. Some people even alternate which one they take, which is safe, too.

Last Updated: April 12, 2023

Follow Us on Social Media

About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

View all posts by

Tags: ,

Categories: General