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Paracetamol vs ibuprofen: Is there a difference?

In collaboration with nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black

4 minute read
A person holding tablets in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

Look in anyone’s medicine cabinet and chances are, paracetamol and ibuprofen are likely to be in there. But, what’s the difference between these common painkillers, and how do you know which one to take?

We spoke with nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black to find out. By knowing the effect each painkiller has on the body, you’ll be able to make a decision with confidence next time you or your children are experiencing pain or fever.

What is paracetamol?

Paracetamol is one of the most commonly used medications in the country. While no one knows exactly how the medication works, it’s been proven to reduce pain and fever, likely by reducing the intensity of pain signals to the brain. Hamish says paracetamol is well tolerated by all ages, and that it’s a safe and effective medication for mild to moderate pain and fever.

It can be taken in tablet, capsule, intravenous or syrup form, and – as long as you follow the instructions on the pack – the risk of having an adverse reaction is low.

Hamish advises that if your pain isn’t under control with paracetamol, you should see a doctor.

A woman with a headache in an office.

What is ibuprofen?

Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug – a type of medication typically used for pain relief and to bring down a fever.

Ibuprofen is effective for mild-to-moderate pain and fever if it’s caused by inflammation. Arthritis, infection, toothache, period pain or swelling from a sprained ankle are examples of pain likely to be related to inflammation.

Always take ibuprofen tablets and capsules with food or a drink of milk to reduce the chance of an upset stomach. Do not take it on an empty stomach. As with paracetamol, always follow the instructions that come with the medicine.

What should I take if I have a headache?

According to Hamish, paracetamol is the first line of drugs if you’re trying to manage a headache.

While both medicines are safe, paracetamol has fewer risks associated with it among groups of people such as the elderly, and those with kidney disease or prone to gastrointestinal bleeding. If you’re pregnant, paracetamol is also the safest choice.

For everyone else, ibuprofen is effective for both pain and fever if inflammation is a component, and you can take both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same time over the short term if you’re experiencing strong pain.

Related: What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?

What is the difference between paracetamol and ibuprofen?

The main difference between the two medications is that ibuprofen reduces inflammation, whereas paracetamol does not.

According to Hamish, there’s no advantage in taking ibuprofen or paracetamol brands such as Nurofen or Panadol over the cheaper chemist or supermarket versions.

Related: What’s the difference between branded and generic medications?

“The main takeout is that paracetamol is safer, because of those groups that are slightly more at risk, but if there’s an inflammatory component, then you’re better off taking ibuprofen,” Hamish says.

Taking either medicine consistently over a long period isn’t wise, particularly as you get older.

“If you have pain and it’s not settling within a day or two, see a doctor for personalised advice,” Hamish advises.

Whether it’s lower back pain, a sore shoulder, sprained ankle or a migraine that keeps coming back, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to seeking help. We answer some of the biggest questions you might have through our article I have a health concern, what do I do?.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black is the nib Group Medical Advisor. He has been a Medical Practitioner for over 25 years, trained as a General Practitioner and continues to practise as such two days a week. Hamish has also spent many years working in Emergency and Medical Assistance, including leading the nib travel clinical team. He has worked in rural and urban environments in Australia and the UK, including time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

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