Though they're widely used as painkillers, long-term use of analgesics can be risky.
An analgesic is a medicine that relieves pain.
These drugs can be sold as an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drug.
There are different types of analgesics, including:
- Opioids (narcotics), such as Avinza, Kadian, or MS Contin (morphine), Oxycontin (oxycodone), Dolophine or Methadose (methadone), Dilaudid (hydromorphone), codeine, Demerol (meperidine), Duragesic or Actiq (fentanyl), and others
- Tylenol (acetaminophen)
- Combination medicines that contain Tylenol and an opioid
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), Celebrex (celecoxib), and others
- Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), which is sometimes considered an NSAID
The medicines are commonly used to treat pain due to arthritis, surgery, injury, toothache, headache, menstrual cramps, sore muscles, or other causes.
How Does an Analgesic Work?
Different analgesics work in different ways.
Opioids reduce the pain signals sent by the nervous system and the brain's reaction to those pain signals.
Tylenol works by changing the way the body senses pain.
NSAIDs block the effects of prostaglandins (chemicals in the body with hormone-like qualities), reducing both pain and swelling.
Analgesic Side Effects
Your risk of experiencing side effects depends on the type of analgesic you take, and how long you take it.
Side effects of analgesics may include:
- Upset stomach
- Ringing in your ears
- Skin itching or rash
- Dry mouth
Tell your doctor about all medical conditions you have before taking an analgesic.
Children shouldn't take aspirin because a serious condition known as Reye's syndrome can occur.
Taking large amounts of Tylenol can harm your liver. Don't take more than three grams (about six extra-strength pills, or nine regular pills) in a day.
NSAIDs may increase your risk of stomach bleeding, heart attack, or stroke. Talk to your doctor about these risks.
If you take an opioid for a long time, you could develop a dependence as your body gets used to the drug. Some people also become addicted to opioids. Talk to your doctor if this is a concern.
When you first start taking an opioid, you may need to avoid driving — or performing other tasks that require alertness — until you know how you react to the medicine.
Tell your doctor about all prescription, non-prescription, illegal, recreational, herbal, nutritional, or dietary drugs you're taking before starting on an analgesic.
Follow the instructions on your prescription or package label carefully. Don't take more of the medicine than is recommended.
If you suspect an overdose of an analgesic, contact a poison control center or emergency room immediately.
You can get in touch with a poison control center at 800-222-1222.
Analgesics and Alcohol
Alcohol can worsen certain side effects of analgesics.
Avoid drinking alcohol while taking these medicines, especially analgesics that contain acetaminophen.
Analgesics and Pregnancy
Tell your doctor if you're pregnant, might become pregnant, or are breastfeeding a baby before taking an analgesic.
You'll have to discuss the risks and benefits of taking the medicine with your doctor.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Pain Relievers, MedlinePlus.
- Analgesics, Arthritis Foundation.
- Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers, MedlinePlus.