Using over-the-counter pain relievers safely

A range of pain relief medicines can be bought without prescription. These are known as over-the-counter pain relievers, including paracetamol, some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin, and some pain medicines that contain codeine.

Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the best options for you before buying any over-the-counter medicines. This is particularly important if you suffer from any other medical conditions, such as stomach, kidney, liver or heart problems.

Over-the-counter pain relievers

Using over-the-counter medicines

Over-the-counter pain relievers are medicines. Some medicines are prescribed by a doctor. Others are available ‘over the counter’ without a prescription.

Even if you buy these over-the-counter medicines (OTCs) from a supermarket, or they come in a different formulation, such as an ointment, it is important to remember they are still medicines.

Using pain medicines safely

Over-the-counter pain relievers are generally safe, but there can be serious consequences if they:

  • are not taken as directed, particularly if you take too much
  • interact with another medicine you take
  • are used by people with certain health conditions.

When selecting an over-the-counter pain reliever, it is important to be aware of the benefits and risks so you can select the one that will be the most effective and safe.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all the medicines you are currently taking so they can advise you about which pain relievers you can take safely. Make sure you include any pain relievers, both prescription and non-prescription, on your medicines list.

Read the packaging and follow instructions

It’s important that you always read the packaging of your medicine and follow the instructions for taking it. Taking more than the recommended dose doesn't mean the medicine will be more effective — in fact, it could do your body some serious damage. The same brand of pain reliever might come in different strengths, so you need to read the directions to ensure you're taking the correct dose.

You can find the directions for taking a medicine on its packaging. This will include how much to take (the dose) and how regularly you can take it.

It will also include information about the type and strength of the medicine and its active ingredient.

Overdoses and side effects

If you suspect that you or someone else has taken too much of a medicine or you notice a side effect, immediately phone your doctor or the Poisons Information Centre (telephone 13 11 26) for advice, or go to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

Do this even if there are no signs of discomfort or poisoning, as urgent medical attention may be required.

For more information

To find out more about your medicine, see the consumer medicine information by searching for your brand of medicine.

You can also download the NPS brochure Why does it matter which pain reliever I choose?