Since Advil, Tylenol, and Aspirin are all common pain-relieving medications, it can be pretty confusing remembering all the differences between them. While many will admit they know the three medications don’t all work the same way, not many can say what the differences between them are.
Advil, Tylenol, and Aspirin each have a unique function, and a specific kind of pain that they’re better suited to relieving. These over-the-counter pain meds also have very different side effects. You may have a go-to pain med that you instinctively reach for whenever you feel any type of pain coming on, but this guide will help you break that pattern. Using the information below, you’ll be able to properly assess which medication to choose to relieve the particular pain that you happen to be feeling.
Medical Name: Ibuprofen
The Science Behind How Advil Works
Advil is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. It works by preventing COX 1 and COX 2 enzymes from creating the compounds that can increase pain and inflammation in your body.
When to Use Advil
Advil works on the affected location of any injury that causes pain and/or inflammation. If the pain itself is caused by an inflammation, Advil will directly help to alleviate it. This is in contrast to Tylenol, which works centrally to increase your pain threshold.
For inflammatory pain, Advil works best. If you’re hoping to get rid of the cause of the pain, and not just reduce the amount of pain you’re feeling (which is what Tylenol does), taking Advil is a good fit.
Advil’s Side Effects
These will of course depend on each individual. The following symptoms are uncommon but can happen: upset stomach, mild heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, dizziness, headaches, nervousness, rashes, blurred vision, or tinnitus.
Medical Name: Acetaminophen
The Science Behind How Tylenol Works
Tylenol is an analgesic that inhibits production of cyclooxygenase (COX), which then blocks the production of prostaglandins. Unlike most non-opioid alagesics, it doesn’t block CO in the peripheral nervous system to an appreciable extent.
When to Use Tylenol
Tylenol is a relatively weak analgesic that should be used for headaches, fevers, and minor aches/pains. Tylenol is not ideal for sprains or pain as a result of inflammation, as it does not possess anti-inflammatory properties like Aspirin and Advil do. It works very well to increase your resistance to feeling or sensing pain, and as such is considered efficient at reducing fevers and general bodily aches.
For general pains and aches, then, take Tylenol. For fevers and headaches, Tylenol is also ideal.
Tylenol’s Side Effects
If taken incorrectly, Tylenol can actually cause liver damage. Stop taking Tylenol and immediately consult a doctor should you have any of the following symptoms: jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), dark urine, and/or clay-colored stools. Nausea, stomach pain, and a loss of appetite can also occur as side effects of taking Tylenol.
Medical Name: Acetylsalicylic Acid
The Science Behind How Aspirin Works
Aspirin works in two ways:
- It’s part anti-prostaglandin, which works to reduce fever, general pain relief, and inflammation (just like Advil).
- It’s also part anti-platelet agent, which acts as a blood thinner by inhibiting production of thromboxane, which is what binds platelets together.
When to Use Aspirin
Aspirin is great for regular headaches, to reduce swelling of joints, for mild fevers, and as a part of an everyday regimen (in low doses) to combat various disorders like Ischaemic strokes, dementia, heart attacks, and certain types of cancer like bowel cancer.
Aspirin is ideal for everyday use in small doses (under 100 mg) because it helps to circulate the blood in your body, and is especially ideal to use during the onset of and after a heart attack, as it reduces chances of heart attacks recurring.
Aspirin is not ideal for migraines or severe pain, as it may not be sufficiently strong enough to reduce extreme pain. Aspirin’s anti-inflammatory properties, while similar to Advil’s, are not as strong as Advil’s. So if you’re looking for the strongest anti-inflammatory medication, again, don’t use Aspirin, use Advil instead.
Aspirin’s Side Effects
When using Aspirin, there is risk of stomach ulcers and irritation. If you happen to get the Aspirin pills that come with an Enteric coating, however, these protect the stomach lining, thus dramatically reducing the likelihood of stomach ulcers from occurring.
Its abilities as a blood thinning agent should be kept in mind if you are bleeding, as aspirin can exacerbate the flow of blood.
For those who like to skip to the end, the conclusion is that Avil is ideal for inflammatory pain, as it prevents your body from producing the enzymes that can cause inflammation and pain, Tylenol is ideal for general pain, as it raises your pain threshold, and finally, Aspirin acts as a weaker anti-inflammatory medication to Advil, as well as having the added benefit of being a blood thinner that can be used as a daily supplement, thus making it ideal for mild headaches and heart attack prevention.
Next time you reach for a pain med, think about which one of these three common over-the-counter pain medications will help you out the most. You may find yourself reaching for a different bottle than you’re used to.
Disclaimer: The information in this article not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice; it is provided for educational purposes only. As always, defer to a healthcare professional for medical advice.
More First Aid Resources
When it comes to first aid, you need two important things to help you on your quest to keep yourself and those around you safe & healthy: knowledge and (to a lesser extent) supplies. To tackle the prior, take a look through our list of the top 22 emergency & survival first aid books and grab those that you think will best help you gain the knowledge you’ll need. For the latter, take a look at our Ultimate First Aid Supplies List to see if there’s anything you should be adding to your at-home first aid supplies stockpile, or if there’s something you’ve forgotten to add to one of your first aid kits.
Do you know how to tell if a cut is infected, what the maximum recommended doses for common painkillers are, and how to quickly assess and address emergency situations? Did you know you can superglue cuts and that Imodium is an excellent tool for survival?
If you have some time, you can also quickly browse through all the first aid articles on this blog, to see if there’s anything valuable you’ve yet to learn on the topics we’ve written about.
Dan Schwemin says
Great article. I learned to some new things for sure. I used to get migraines when I was younger and got to the point where stuff like Tylenol and Advil just weren’t cutting it, so I asked my Doctor what he felt was the best over-the-counter stuff to take in his professional opinion. He recommend Excedrine Migraine. It’s Asprin mixed with caffeine. I’ve never looked back since! I can have the worst headache in the world, and within 20 min of taking that stuff, poof! It’s gone! Best stuff I’ve ever used. So needless to say, I’m an Aspirin fan.
Thomas Xavier says
Interesting Dan, never heard of the stuff before! I will keep an eye out for it. I sometimes suffer from migraines, mostly around tax season for some inexplicable reason…
As this is a survival blog, keep in mind that Tylenol is recommended if you are wounded, or recovering from surgery, as it doesn’t interfere with the body’s ability to form blood clots.
Elise Xavier says
Good point, Jonathan! That’s an incredibly important consideration that many people wouldn’t have thought of. If you get a cut, you’re going to need that ability to form blood clots!
Christine Baker says
This article was really helpful! As an AT hiker, it’s good to know what I should carry in my med kit!
You should also probably add Naproxen (Aleve) to this list. It is very similar to advil, in that it works the same way. However it has been shown to possess a slower response time than ibuprofen, its affects last longer. I have read that it can potentially be more effective with muscle aches (after a long hike or workout), but it is not recommended to mix the two drugs.
Thomas Xavier says
Good suggestion Ryan, I have never used Aleve personally- I might add a secondary article with a breakdown of less common OTC medicine- do you have any other suggestions?
Sorry for the late post, but the best selection of pain killers is probably… All three.
There are a at least a couple circumstances where 2 meds in combination work better than either one. Take migraines, for example- the old combination was called AAC (acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine) and it still works very well. For high fever, alternating doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen are frequently recommended by doctors. This is especially useful in children. If you have room, stash all three.
Thomas Xavier says
Howdy Davey, Those are some really good points, Thanks for dropping by!
Great article on those 3 types of pain relievers. I think everyone should know what they are taking for pain and why. I see so many people taking Tylenol for inflammation all the time. I will be directing them to this article.
Thomas Xavier says
To be honest I was guilty of doing that too- its annoying when painkillers don’t clearly tell you exactly what the product does!