Both aspirin and Tylenol manage pain - here's when to take each of them and why

Both aspirin and Tylenol manage pain - here's when to take each of them and why
Aspirin and Tylenol both manage pain and fevers, but aspirin contains anti-inflammatory properties.Grace Cary/ Getty Images
  • Both aspirin and Tylenol are frequently used for pain relief and fever reduction, but aspirin has anti-inflammatory properties that Tylenol does not.
  • Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than three, parents should use caution when giving it to children or teenagers.
  • Tylenol is more dangerous than aspirin in excess, as taking too much can damage the liver and cause a variety of symptoms.

    Most people who have sought pain relief are familiar with both aspirin and Tylenol, but there are important differences between the two.

    "With both aspirin and Tylenol, very frequently we think of using them for pain relief and fever," says Suzanne Nesbit, clinical pharmacy and pain management specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "However, aspirin has anti-inflammatory properties that Tylenol does not."

    Here are the details on each medication, the risks, and what each is best used for.
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    What is aspirin?

    Aspirin is a common over the counter medication. Uses for aspirin include:

    A typical dose is one or two 325 mg tablets every four to six hours.

    Parents should use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers for fever or pain. Though it is approved for use in children older than 3 years old, kids recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin because there is a low risk they could develop Reye's syndrome, a rare disorder that can cause serious liver and brain damage.
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    People should not take aspirin if they have an allergy to it or salicylates, chemicals found in plants that are an ingredient in aspirin and other pain-relieving medications. Also, avoid aspirin if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, severe liver or kidney disease, certain stomach conditions such as a history of gastric or duodenal ulcers, or a bleeding disorder. Because aspirin can act as a blood thinner, it may put people with these conditions at risk of additional bleeding.

    There are 47 major drug interactions with aspirin including ibuprofen, which is in Advil and Motrin.

    What is Tylenol?

    Like aspirin, Tylenol is an over the counter medication recommended to treat pain from headaches, menstrual cramps, and toothaches. Unlike aspirin, Tylenol is generally safe for use in healthy children of all ages who are not allergic to it, just in lower doses.
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    The typical dosage of Tylenol for adults is two 325 mg pills every 4 to 6 hours.

    While too much aspirin can make you sick, Tylenol is even more dangerous in excess. Taking too much acetaminophen can damage the liver, causing symptoms such as loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain, and coma. If you suspect you or a loved one has taken too much Tylenol, call 9-1-1 immediately.

    Tylenol has eight major drug interactions. It can also be dangerous for people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol, which increases the risk of liver toxicity.
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    Aspirin vs. Tylenol

    Though the medications have many overlapping uses, sometimes one is more useful than the other for a given ailment. This guide lays out each one's strengths and some common use comparisons, according to Nesbit:

    Aspirin (Bayer)Tylenol (acetaminophen)
    Headache reliefYes, but not as effectiveYes
    Fever reductionYesYes
    Menstrual cramp treatmentYesYes
    Anti-inflammatory YesNo
    Heart attack and stroke preventionYesNo
    Use in childrenNoYes
    ArthritisYes, but not as safe long-termYes


    Insider's takeaway

    Both aspirin and Tylenol are effective against aches, pains, and fever. Tylenol has the advantage of being more generally safe for children, but it can also be more harmful in high doses. Aspirin has the benefit of potentially helping to prevent stroke and heart attack.

    "In general, these medications can be used safely and are available over the counter," says Nesbit.
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    Although aspirin and Tylenol are widely available, that doesn't mean there aren't potential side effects related to each. Always read the label and talk to your doctor when deciding which painkiller is best for you to use.
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