The real difference between ibuprofen and acetaminophen

Have you ever been sick, opened up the medicine cabinet, and stared blankly at the wide array of bottles and boxes before you? Knowing which medication will suit your needs best can be tricky at first, but with a little more information and knowledge, it's actually quite easy.

At first glance, ibuprofen and acetaminophen may seem very similar. They are both effective in reducing fever and alleviating pain and are both considered cyclooxygenase (COX) inhibitors (via STAT Pearls). However, it's important to be aware of their actual differences.

Ibuprofen, recognized by the brand names Advil and Motrin, belongs to a class of drugs known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (via Drugs.com). This means that while it can reduce fever and pain, ibuprofen has the added benefit of also reducing inflammation throughout the body — something its counterpart can not do. NSAIDs are often used in the treatment of joint pains, injuries, arthritis, and even conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and gout. NSAIDs are not recommended for all people, especially for those with a history of known heart, gastrointestinal, and kidney disease, or are on a blood thinner.

In contrast to NSAIDs, acetaminophen, recognized as Tylenol most commonly, can be given to infants under a doctor's guidance (via Hospital for Special Surgery). Ibuprofen, on the other hand, is not recommended in babies under the age of six months. Acetaminophen is used most often to reduce fevers due to illness, and is not recommended in children or adults with known liver disease.

Differences in side effect profile

Important differences also lay in their side effect profiles. Both drugs can cause gastrointestinal upset, rashes, nausea, and liver and kidney damage, to name a few (via Healthline).

However, acetaminophen is processed by the liver and thus can cause liver damage, and sometimes even death. Currently, the maximum daily dose of acetaminophen is 4,000 mg daily for the average healthy adult, but several medical counsels and even the Tylenol brand itself, have reduced the dosing to a maximum of 3,000 mg daily, in an attempt to avoid unintentional liver toxicity (via Tylenol). Liver toxicity can occur within 24 hours and should be treated as a life-threatening emergency. For proper pediatric doses, it's important to consult with your childs' pediatrician.

Ibuprofen, unlike acetaminophen, is processed by the kidneys, and thus can potentially lead to devastating side effects like kidney disease or even kidney failure with chronic use. Ibuprofen also tends to upset the stomach more than acetaminophen and can lead to the development of gastric ulcers.

Certain medications like blood thinners, blood pressure medications, and cholesterol-lowering medications can interact with either ibuprofen and or acetaminophen, so before taking any new medication, it is critical that you speak with your regular medical provider. Hopefully, this information makes that next medicine cabinet decision just a little easier — but if you have any questions, speak to your healthcare provider first.