Ibuprofen and paracetamol are two medicines that are very frequently used to treat fever and all kinds of pain, such as headache or sore throat caused by colds and flu.

Although neither of these medicines usually has serious health risks and both are useful for relieving certain symptoms, it is worth noting that in some cases it is better to take paracetamol and in other cases ibuprofen.

What are ibuprofen and paracetamol?

Paracetamol or acetaminophen is marketed as Gelocatil, Frenadol and Panadol, among other names. It is the most widely used drug in Europe and the United States to relieve pain and fever, especially if it is mild.

Although its mechanism of action is not known in detail, is considered one of the most effective and least risky drugs available , except in cases of overdose.

Ibuprofen, such as diclofenac (Voltaren) or dexketoprofen (Enantyum), is part of the group of drugs known as “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” (NSAIDs), which have analgesic and antipyretic effects.

Ibuprofen stands out among NSAIDs for its fewer side effects , although it is still relatively aggressive on the stomach, heart and kidneys. This drug can be found under many brand names, including Espidifen, Advil or Dalsy.

What are they for?

Many people use acetaminophen and ibuprofen interchangeably to treat the same type of symptoms, especially pain and fever, since the two drugs produce similar effects.

Paracetamol is recommended as a treatment for mild headaches , toothaches, muscle and bone aches. It is also useful for relieving the discomfort associated with colds and flu.

This drug is also frequently used to enhance the pain-relieving effects of opioids such as codeine, which are much more potent, in the treatment of severe pain such as that caused by surgical operations or some types of cancer.

Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs are used to treat all types of pain , especially those caused by inflammation, such as arthritis. Although a potent anti-inflammatory, ibuprofen’s effects in this regard are inferior to those of other NSAIDs, which also explains its greater tolerability.

Is it better to take paracetamol or ibuprofen?

Although the uses of ibuprofen and paracetamol overlap to some degree, the effectiveness of each of these drugs varies depending on the type of symptom being addressed.

1. To lower fever

Ibuprofen is better than paracetamol for lowering intense fever . While ibuprofen has proven antipyretic effects, it is less clear that paracetamol is effective beyond reducing pain and mild fever.

Studies have shown that it is particularly doubtful that paracetamol will lower fever in children, so in these cases ibuprofen is the drug of first choice.

2. For headache

Taking paracetamol alone or with caffeine is very effective in treating tension or migraine headaches . Although ibuprofen can also help reduce this type of pain, paracetamol is considered more effective because it has effects at the neurological level. However, the higher potency of ibuprofen can compensate for this disadvantage in cases of severe pain.

3. For sore throat, cold and flu

Paracetamol is usually more recommended for treating cold and flu symptoms , such as sore throat, because it generally carries less risk than ibuprofen, so it is advisable to opt for this drug when we want to treat almost any mild or moderate discomfort.

5. For toothache

Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs such as Voltaren are very effective in treating dental pain and are considered the drug of choice for toothache and pain after dental operations. This is due to their anti-inflammatory effects.

Combining ibuprofen and acetaminophen may be helpful in treating severe pain of this type that does not improve with ibuprofen alone. Take only acetaminophen if you have stomach problems such as ulcers.

6. For the hangover

Although paracetamol is generally recommended for headaches, a hangover is a special case: since it occurs due to alcohol consumption and paracetamol potentiates its negative effects, taking it in these cases can be counterproductive. Therefore, it is recommended to opt for ibuprofen to fight the hangover .

7. As an anti-inflammatory

Although both drugs are painkillers, only ibuprofen has significant anti-inflammatory effects . Acetaminophen has not been shown to be effective in fighting inflammation, although it has been shown to be effective in fighting pain from inflammation.

This means that in case of inflammatory pain ibuprofen attacks the cause of the problem, while paracetamol has more superficial effects.

8. For post-operative pain

Both drugs are effective in treating pain from surgical operations. In these cases paracetamol is usually used in conjunction with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or with codeine or other opiates, as previously mentioned.

9. For menstrual pain

Again, the anti-inflammatory effects of ibuprofen make it superior to paracetamol in cases such as menstrual pain . Acetaminophen has a surface effect for inflammatory pain, although being less aggressive than ibuprofen it may make sense to take it for menstrual pain if it is mild.

10. For joint pain

Acetaminophen is effective in relieving pain caused by joint problems but as we have said it does not reduce the inflammation that causes such pain, while ibuprofen does.

Therefore, it is recommended to take ibuprofen for joint pain caused by inflammation , such as arthritis, sprains and strains.

Contraindications and side effects

Ibuprofen should not be taken during pregnancy because it has been shown to be harmful to the baby during the third trimester at least. It is also not recommended for use during breastfeeding. However, does not appear to carry any risk when taking paracetamol during pregnancy and breastfeeding .

Acetaminophen has the problem that the effective dose is close to the dose at which it can cause an overdose. It is dangerous to mix paracetamol with alcohol because it increases its toxicity and the risk of adverse effects.

The side effects of these drugs also differ. Ibuprofen is aggressive to the stomach, so it must be taken with food and even combined with drugs that protect the stomach . Acetaminophen does not affect the stomach but can damage the liver in the long term to a greater extent than ibuprofen.

Final recommendations

Neither paracetamol nor ibuprofen should be consumed on a regular basis because of potential long-term side effects.

Although in general when in doubt we should use paracetamol because it is less aggressive than ibuprofen, it also has fewer uses. Remember that the effects of ibuprofen are superior because in addition to being useful in relieving pain and fever it also reduces inflammation, unlike paracetamol.

Also, when we want to take one of these two medicines we should take into account their side effects : if we have liver problems we should avoid taking paracetamol and if we are more worried about damaging the stomach it is advisable not to take ibuprofen or to take it together with a stomach protector.