Weathering the storm: should you go without painkillers?

Assorted painkillers

We’ve been taking painkillers since man first started gathering plants and food from the land. Nature has a bounty of botanical remedies that help ease pain, and throughout history different cultures have found natural painkillers to cure their aches and pains. For the ancient Egyptians, it was the leaves from the myrtle bush. Europeans opted for chewing on hunks of willow bark. The Native Americans preferred birch bark. Now, we swallow over-the-counter painkillers with a swing of water, hoping to chase away our headaches and heartburn. But should you always immediately reach for the pills?

How do painkillers work?

When you injure part of your body, the nerves around the damaged tissue send pain messages back to your brain to let you know that you are injured. It’s like a little red flag alert saying injury! injury! Painkiller drugs very cleverly interfere with these pain messages, so that your brain doesn’t register the pain. This means that you don’t feel it. Ta-dah! Your headache is history.

The holy trinity – paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen

There is a common misconception that paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen all work the same, with many of us grabbing the first one available when we have a medical niggle. Yes, they all interfere with the pain messages from reaching the brain, stopping you feeling the pain. But, unlike paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This means that they are not steroids and reduce inflammation caused by injuries or illnesses, which paracetamol doesn’t do.

Which painkiller to take, when?

As anti-inflammatory drugs, aspirin and ibuprofen should be used to combat pain associated with inflammation like muscle pain or damage, arthritis, and sport injuries like sprains and strains. While paracetamol can be used to ease the majority of injury-related pain, it will not reduce any swelling.

Adults can take paracetamol at the same time as other painkillers (like ibuprofen, aspirin and codeine) as long as they don’t contain paracetamol as well. But don’t go overboard on the dosage – only use an additional painkiller if it’s absolutely necessary and stick to only one. Don’t have paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. Make sure to always read the instructions on the back of the pack or in the enclosed leaflet before taking more.

Bumps and babies

Taking some painkillers when pregnant or when you’re breastfeeding is completely safe, whereas others should be avoided unless your doctor has given you the green light to take them. Paracetamol is usually safe to take, but to be on the safe side use the smallest dose for the shortest length of time. Taking drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin when pregnant should be avoided unless given on the advice of your GP. Ibuprofen shouldn’t be used when you’re 30 or more weeks pregnant as this increases the risk of complications.

For the little ones, paracetamol can be taken by children over the age of 2 months. Ibuprofen may be given to children at least 3 months old or older who weigh at least 5kg (11lbs). Medication containing aspirin should be saved for just the grown-ups, and shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 16.

On a scale of 1-10, how much does it hurt?

It is a complete myth that the more painkillers you take, the better they work. If you’re still in pain, head over to the pharmacy and tell them exactly how many painkillers you’ve had and what types. You might be able to then take other painkillers like naproxen (also an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen) or a weak opioid painkiller such as codeine, following the advice of your pharmacist. You can also seek out of hours medical help if you feel that your condition has escalated, or book a home doctors appointment.

Nasty side effects

Although most people can take painkillers and never experience any nasty side effects, some do, particularly if you take painkillers over a long period of time. Aspirin can cause some not-so-nice side effects like nausea, vomiting, heartburn and stomach pain. Ibuprofen is pretty similar to aspirin, causing heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort and indigestion. It can also cause diarrhoea, dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, and hypersensitivity reactions – all the stuff you want to avoid.

Paracetamol has fewer side effects but in rare cases can still cause severe reactions like liver failure, especially when paracetamol is taken over a long period or in too high quantities, or taken together with alcohol. Liver failure can be life-threatening, so be careful to take the correct dosage of paracetamol and only for the bare minimum length of time. If you think you’ve taken too much of any medicine, get medical advice as soon as you can.

When painkillers aren’t the answer

Painkillers are small miracle solvers. When you’ve got a headache and need to crack on, they can save the day. But they may not always be the answer you’re looking for.

Don’t take paracetamol when…

For paracetamol, if you have existing liver or kidney problems, problems with alcohol such as long-term alcohol misuse, are very underweight or are taking other medication, seek medical advice before taking any. Stay clear of taking it completely if you’ve had an allergic reaction to paracetamol in the past – it’s not a good idea.

Avoid ibuprofen if…

Ibuprofen is a bit trickier than paracetamol. You should avoid taking ibuprofen like the plague if have had a strong reaction to ibuprofen or aspirin (or any other NSAIDs) in the past. Likewise, if you are currently suffering or have suffered from stomach ulcers, severe heart failure, liver disease, or if you are taking aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease.

You should use ibuprofen with caution if you are aged 65 or over, are breastfeeding or suffer from asthma, kidney or liver issues. It’s also best avoided if you suffer from lupus, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure, peripheral arterial disease, have had a stroke or suffer from any heart problems, including angina, heart attacks, or heart failure.

When aspirin is a no-go…

Aspirin, like ibuprofen, can be taken safely by most people without a problem. However, seek advice from your doctor before taking aspirin if you have had an allergic reaction to aspirin, ibuprofen or any other NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory drugs), have asthma, have had stomach ulcers, liver or kidney problems, haemophilia or another bleeding disorder, uncontrolled high blood pressure or are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are taking other medications.  

It’s not the cure

It’s one of the biggest myths of painkillers – that drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen will cure your symptoms. There’s a reason they are called painkillers, not symptom curers. All painkillers do is ‘kill’ or mask your pain so you can’t feel it, but the source of the pain is still there. They do not cure you of the source of your pain, they just distract you from it. At the end of the day, you have to address what’s causing the pain, instead of just concealing it.  

Don’t play vet

When your furry friends are in pain, as tempting as it may be to give them over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol to make them feel better, don’t play vet. That’s what the experts are for. You should avoid giving pets painkillers at all costs. Painkillers designed for humans can be dangerous to pets, and can make their condition worse instead of better.

Doctor, doctor …

If the painkillers aren’t working or you can’t take them, it might be time to call the doctor. Seek medical advice by calling 111 or booking an appointment at your GP. Wanting to see a doctor straight away? Qured offer an affordable and convenient way to book an appointment with a doctor the same day. Simply download and register with the Qured app, and you can have a doctor to your door in as little as two hours.

Are you concerned that stubborn headaches and the office bug are ruining the workflow? With Qured, you can set up a workplace doctor to tend to your business’ wellbeing and help prevent medical niggles ruining the workweek.