Demystifying the Medicine Aisle: Breaking Down Active Ingredients

Demystifying the Medicine Aisle: Breaking Down Active Ingredients

You’ve joyfully cart-cruised the rainbow-colored aisles in the produce department. You got your toilet paper and paper towels and you’ve stocked up on canned goods. Coffee, tea, whole-wheat flour, check. You’ve got one more aisle to hit... and you can’t put it off any longer. 

You reluctantly push your cart down the center aisle and veer to the left. A feeling of utter confusion overwhelms you. A deep breath, an audible exhale, and you push your cart into the dreaded medicine aisle. It’s a sea of terminology that bewilders the best of us. If only it could be a little more...comprehensible? Straightforward? Less mind-numbing?

Now, we’re not here to convince you that the medicine aisle is ever going to be as exciting as going through the produce section or perusing the snack aisle (only in moderation, of course). But, we do believe in making things simpler, especially when it comes to your health and well-being. 

Simplifying is about gaining an understanding of something at the most basic level. You not only want to understand it yourself, but also be able to explain it to someone else. In the words of our old pal Albert Einstein, “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.”  

In our “demystifying” series, we’re attempting to help you do just that. You’ll learn exactly how some of the most seemingly similar, yet chemically different, remedies function. And we promise you’ll also be able to explain it all to your six-year-old.

What’s the Difference between Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen?

Today, we’re going to break down the two biggest pain-relievers in the medicine aisle: Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen. You’ll learn exactly what they are, how they affect your body, how much to take and give to your family, and any of the potential reactions you should watch out for when taking them. 

What’s Acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen is a type of pain reliever that’s best suited to relieve aches, pain, and moderate fever. It’s the ideal option for people who have health conditions that affect their gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, or stomach lining. Whereas ibuprofen belongs to a category of pain relievers called NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) and can irritate those conditions if dosed inappropriately, acetaminophen doesn’t share that risk. It does pose a higher risk of side effects if too much has been taken, so sticking with the recommended dosage is very important.

How Does Acetaminophen Work?

Acetaminophen up until relatively recently was a bit of a mystery. Scientists, medical professionals, and patients knew unequivocally that it was effective. But, the exact mechanism within the body wasn’t well understood. A 2006 study finally put the mystery to rest:

Although paracetamol (acetaminophen) has been used clinically for more than a century, its mode of action has been a mystery until about one year ago, when two independent groups (Zygmunt and colleagues and Bertolini and colleagues) produced experimental data unequivocally demonstrating that the analgesic effect of paracetamol is due to the indirect activation of cannabinoid CB(1) receptors.

What does that mean, exactly? Lucky for you, we have our resident expert, Dr. Richard Harris, MD, PharmD, MBA here to help break it down for you: 

“Acetaminophen is turned into a compound called AM404 which prevents metabolism of anandamide (AEA). AEA is one of the body's natural cannabinoid molecules and serves as a signaling molecule in the brain.   The result is modulation of pain signals in our brains.  Body temperature is reduced in a similar fashion by the actions of AEA in part of the brain called the hypothalamus.”

-Sources: and

Acetaminophen is best used for:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Common cold
  • Sore throat
  • Toothache
  • Moderate Fever
  • Backache
  • Osteoarthritis

What’s Ibuprofen?

Ibuprofen belongs to a category of pain relievers called NSAIDs. This stands for Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, essentially drugs that help your body reduce pain and inflammation. While both ibuprofen and acetaminophen help with aches, pain, and fever, ibuprofen is a better choice if you’re trying to reduce inflammation from an injury, and for when you have a higher than moderate level of fever. 

How Does Ibuprofen Work?

When you experience a fever, have pain, or inflammation, your body starts to produce a specific type of prostaglandins. These are compounds within the body that spring into action when you’re sick or injured to promote healing. If you get a cut, for example, these hormone-like molecules are responsible for you feeling the pain, seeing the redness around the injury, and experiencing tissue inflammation. 

Since we’d rather not needlessly experience all of that pain and inflammation, we reach for NSAID category drugs like ibuprofen. When you take ibuprofen, it blocks cyclooxygenase in your body - these are the enzymes that create prostaglandins. Your body still heals because it doesn’t block every single prostaglandin that tries to get through, but it does block just enough so that you don’t have to experience the pain. 

Ibuprofen is best used for:

  • Muscle aches
  • Common cold
  • Toothache
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Backache
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Strains
  • Sprains
  • Cuts
  • Scrapes
  • Puncture wounds
  • Joint pain

Higher daily doses can be prescribed for:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • ankylosing spondylitis

Tips for Taking Pain Relievers and Risks to Watch Out For

If you’re suffering from a cold or flu, you’re likely taking a few different medicines in the span of a day. Perhaps a decongestant for your sinuses, something for your cough, a pain reliever for body aches or fever, and maybe something to help you sleep. It’s important to know exactly what’s packaged within those medications so that you’re not accidentally taking too much pain reliever. Sometimes, a pain reliever can be included in a sinus or cough medicine, and you don’t want to double up unintentionally. 

This is particularly true in the case of acetaminophen. While perfectly safe to take for pain relief, you should exercise caution before exceeding the recommended dose. Acetaminophen contains a metabolite called NAPQI, and when you take too much, it accumulates in the liver. This can potentially cause damage to the liver and should be addressed immediately if you suspect you’ve taken too much. Warning signs to look out for are nausea and vomiting. It’s also best not to take it with alcohol or if you have pre-existing liver disease. 

Side effects of Acetaminophen to watch out for include: 

  • red, peeling, or blistering skin
  • rash
  • hives
  • itching
  • swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips, eyes, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
  • hoarseness
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing

The primary risk of taking too much ibuprofen is the risk of stomach bleeding and kidney injury. This can happen due to the decreased production of prostaglandins when taking NSAIDs because some prostaglandins work to reduce inflammation. As long as you stick to the recommended dosage and don’t take ibuprofen for extended periods, you can safely and effectively use this pain reliever with very little risk. 

Side effects of Ibuprofen to watch out for include:

  • black or tarry stool
  • bright red blood in vomit
  • cramps in the abdomen
  • dark or bright red blood mixed with stool
  • dizziness or faintness
  • feeling tired
  • paleness
  • shortness of breath
  • vomit that looks like coffee grounds
  • weakness

Additionally, you’ll want to consult with your doctor, healthcare professional, or utilize the benefits of an
asktimely Virtual Urgent Care Membership and message with one of our healthcare specialists if you’re taking other medications or have any medical conditions. It’s always a good idea to check drug interaction precautions before taking anything new.

How Much Pain-Reliever Should I Take? 

Dosing depends on the severity of your symptoms, your age, and sometimes body weight, particularly for children. Packages will always contain accurate dosage recommendations.

“For adults, acetaminophen and ibuprofen are taken every 6-8 hours.  Acetaminophen begins working within 30 to 60 minutes and peak effect occurs within 30 to 60 minutes.  The duration of action is 4 to 6 hours.  Ibuprofen onset for pain relief is 30 to 60 minutes with a duration of action of 4 to 6 hours.  Do not take more than the recommended amount in frequency or total amount. “

-Dr. Richard Harris

Dosing Acetaminophen

For acetaminophen, it’s recommended that you never exceed 3,000 mg in a 24 hour period. Doses should span at least 4 hours. 

Dosing Ibuprofen

For ibuprofen, if taken over the counter, don’t exceed 1,200 mg per day. That gets bumped up a little when it’s prescribed by a doctor for more serious, long-term conditions. In those cases,  patients shouldn’t exceed 2,400 mg per day. 

Quick Relief for Adults

At the first sign of illness, we’d all love to be able to crawl into bed, bury ourselves under the covers, and hit the snooze button for the next 3 days. Unfortunately, we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes, we have to push through. Other times, we’d just prefer to not feel terrible, even if we do get to stay home from work. 

Real relief is best served when it’s already sitting in your medicine cabinet. That’s why you’ll want to have a box of our Extra Strength Fever & Pain Relief waiting in the wing for when you need it. This extra-strength, acetaminophen formula is ready to be your BFF when symptoms strike. It’s a quick and effective way to manage your symptoms (and your day) by providing effective relief from:

  • Headaches 
  • Backaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Toothaches
  • Cramps
  • Arthritis pains
  • Fever
  • Cold & flu

Prep Your Medicine Cabinet: Order Extra Strength Fever & Pain Relief 

Can kids take ibuprofen and acetaminophen? 

The short answer is absolutely. Both of these pain relievers are safe for kids when the recommended dosage is followed. If you’re a parent, you probably know that one of the hardest things to do when you’ve got a sick child is trying to get them to take icky-tasting medications. We’ve made it easy for parents to administer and kids to take with our specially formulated Children’s Fever Reducer and Pain Relief (Ibuprofen) and Children’s Fever Reducer and Pain Relief (Acetaminophen)

Depending on what you decide is best for your child, we offer two simple pain-relief solutions made just for kids:

  1. A quick-acting berry-flavored formula that temporarily helps relieve the symptoms of fever, pain, body aches, headaches, toothaches, and sore throats. It’s safe for children from 2-11 years old and provides up to 8 hours of relief. Add to Cart: Children’s Fever Reducer and Pain Relief (Ibuprofen)
  2. A cherry-flavored formula that doesn’t contain aspirin or ibuprofen. It provides gentle, temporary relief from fever, pain, body aches, headaches, toothaches, and sore throats. Add to Cart: Children’s Fever Reducer and Pain Relief (Acetaminophen)

Can Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen be mixed together?

There’s no harm in mixing ibuprofen and acetaminophen as long as you don’t exceed the daily recommended dose. According to a 2010 study, the combo may even offer greater relief when used together. It found that a 200 mg dose of ibuprofen/500 mg dose of paracetamol (acetaminophen) provided more effective and sustained pain relief in adults with severe dental pain. 

“Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are safe to take together in the recommended dosage at the recommended frequency.  They work by different mechanisms and offer more effective and sustained relief of occasional aches and pains when combined.”

-Dr. Richard Harris

Deciding whether or not your specific condition could benefit from an ibuprofen and acetaminophen combo, it’s best to consult with your doctor. If you have an asktimely Virtual Care Membership, just message us and we’ll get all of your questions answered quickly and conveniently. When you’re experiencing pain, the last thing you want to do is spend time reading the fine print or searching online for answers. We’re here for you 24/7/365 to connect you with doctors and healthcare specialists the moment you’re in need. 

Learn more about an asktimely Virtual Care Membership 

Deciding whether ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or a combination of the two are right for you and your family should be an informed decision. Understanding the similarities and differences, and how they might benefit your condition, is key. It’s a good idea to learn the difference now so that you know what to take for quick relief. Make it easy on yourself and stock up now so everything you need is within reach when it matters!