How to safely use OTC products?

OTC pain relievers

How to safely use over-the-counter pain relievers

There are many simple things you can do to ease pain. One of the most effective ways is to take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. Also known as analgesics, these can help to relieve mild-to-moderate pain, and can also reduce a fever.1  But, like all medications, it’s important to know how to take analgesics correctly to get maximum pain relief, and avoid unwanted side-effects.

Types of pain reliever

Millions of people around the world take OTC analgesics every day. When they’re taken correctly, they are generally safe and effective in relieving mild-to-moderate aches and pains.2  Although you can find many different pain relieving products on the shelves of the pharmacy or drugstore, they are usually either:

  • Topical – which means it can be applied directly to the skin.
  • Oral – which means swallowing either a tablet or capsule, or dissolving a tablet in water before drinking.

The article Choosing the Right Pain Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever provides more information about OTC analgesic options.

Tips to use pain relievers safely

To make sure you use oral and topical pain relievers properly, here are some tips to remember.

Always read the label. Carefully read the label on the medication prior to taking it.3 The label will contain information on the ingredients included in the medicine, whether it should be applied topically or taken orally  and how much, when and how often you can take or use it. Not all pain relievers are suitable for everyone and the label will help you to determine if it’s okay to use.

Know when to take the medication. In addition to knowing how often you are able to use a pain reliever, it’s important to remember that some oral analgesics should be taken with or after food, as they can upset the stomach.1

Check to ensure the pain reliever is right for you.3 Pain relievers may not be suitable for people over a certain age or those with certain medical problems, such as heart disease.  For more information on analgesic ingredients and who can take them, read the article Choosing the Right Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever. If you’re still concerned, speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice.

Take care if you’re taking other medications. Oral pain relievers can interact with other medications, which may change the effect of one or both drugs, or lead to an unwanted reaction. There are different types of analgesics available and these can interact with different kinds of other medications. So, if you, or a family member are taking other prescription or over-the-counter medications, or dietary supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which pain reliever is right for you.

Don’t take more than the recommended dose.3 The product label on your medication will tell you what dose of pain reliever to use and how often to take it. Take care not to exceed the recommended dose , as this could result in an adverse reaction to the medication. If you require additional pain relief, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Don’t take two different products with the same active ingredient.3 There are many different pain relief products available and many contain the same type of analgesic ingredient. For example, it is important to take care while taking pain relievers and cold or flu products, as these often contain analgesics too. Taking two or more medicines with the same type of active ingredient can increase the chances of an adverse reaction. Check with your doctor or pharmacist for advice on taking different products together.

Don’t use analgesics for longer than you should. Most OTC analgesics are used to relieve pain that lasts for a few days at a time and the product label will tell you how long you can use the product.3 For the treatment of long-term (chronic) pain problem, you should speak to a doctor or pharmacist about the right options for you.

Be aware of possible drug allergies. Some people may be extremely sensitive to the active ingredients in some medications. This can cause a severe allergic reaction, including coughing, swelling of the lips, tongue or face, itchy skin, or hives. If you are concerned about a drug allergy or an allergic reaction to an ingredient in any type of OTC pain reliever, speak to your doctor or pharmacist before using it. Allergic symptoms for which you should seek medical attention include: 4

  • Airway problems: throat and tongue swelling, hoarse voice, a high-pitched sound on breathing in.
  • Breathing problems: shortness of breath and wheezing.
  • Circulation problems: fast pulse rate, feeling dizzy, being pale and clammy, losing consciousness.

Keep away from children. Keep all medication out of sight and reach of children at all times.

Taking the time to read the label on your medication and learning how to use OTC pain relievers correctly means the right pain relief for you and help to avoid side effects.


  1. Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference. 37th Edition, April 2011.
  2. Food and Drug Administration. Health Hints: Use Caution with Pain Relievers. Available at:
  3. Proprietary Association of Great Britain. Managing your pain effectively, using ‘Over the Counter (OTC)’ Medicines. Available at:
  4. Resuscitation Council UK. Emergency treatment of anaphylactic reactions. Guidelines for healthcare providers.  Available at: