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Some people swear by ibuprofen for headaches and other pains. Ibuprofen can do wonders for injuries and sore muscles.
While it has relatively few side effects, there are some risks to be aware of. Let’s take a closer look at what ibuprofen treats and how to use it.
What is ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID for short. It’s available over-the-counter (OTC) in generic forms and under brand names like Advil and Motrin.
Ibuprofen is commonly used for pain relief, inflammation, and as a fever reducer. Other NSAIDs you may have heard of that treat pain and inflammation are naproxen and aspirin. These aren’t the same as ibuprofen but are in a similar class of medication (Ngo, 2021).
What is ibuprofen used for?
Ibuprofen is a popular OTC painkiller or analgesic. People tend to use ibuprofen to treat things like muscle aches, sprains, joint aches, and post-operative pain.
It works by blocking an enzyme needed to make special compounds called prostaglandins. These compounds are responsible for pain perception, inducing fever, and controlling blood clots. By reducing the number of prostaglandins our bodies make, ibuprofen can reduce things like fever, inflammation, and moderate pain (Ngo, 2021).
There is a long list of symptoms and conditions ibuprofen can help with, but here are some of the main ones (FDA, 2018; Ngo, 2021):
- Headaches and migraines
- Pain from a sore throat or common cold
- Menstrual cramps
- Back pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Despite earlier concerns that ibuprofen might worsen COVID-19 infections, recent research has found ibuprofen safe to use for COVID symptoms (Abu, 2021).
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What is the dosage for ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen comes in capsules, tablets, liquids, and as a topical gel for pain relief. Tablets or capsules have strengths ranging from 200–800 mg for adults, with 200 mg being the most common (Ershad, 2021).
The typical dosage for over-the-counter use is 1–2 tablets every 4 to 6 hours as needed. It’s also available in chewable tablets and as a liquid, which is especially convenient for children who might prefer a flavored option.
Higher dosages are available by prescription, as in the case of treating pain following surgery. Regardless of the dose, it’s recommended you take ibuprofen with food or milk to avoid stomach upset. Ibuprofen starts working roughly 30–60 minutes after taking it (Ershad, 2021).
Side effects of ibuprofen
Ibuprofen is linked to relatively few side effects. The most common ones are gastrointestinal, as ibuprofen is responsible for reducing protective digestive mucus and bumping up stomach acid production.
Common side effects include (Queremel, 2021):
- Stomach pain
Topical ibuprofen may cause a rash in some people, particularly if their skin is sensitive or gets easily irritated.
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Other warnings and risks
Because of the way ibuprofen affects the gastrointestinal tract, there are some risks associated with taking it.
Keep an eye out for the signs of stomach bleeding. If you feel faint, vomit blood, have bloody or black stools, or experience abdominal pain that doesn’t go away, stop taking it and seek medical attention (Ngo, 2021).
Some people are at risk of an allergic reaction when taking ibuprofen, especially if you’ve had a reaction to a fever reducer or pain reliever before. Signs of an allergic reaction to ibuprofen include a rash, hives, facial swelling, wheezing, and shock (FDA, 2018).
NSAIDs in general are also linked to an increased risk of heart problems, including heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Ibuprofen can also affect how your kidneys work (Solomon, 2020; Ngo, 2021).
Get medical advice from a healthcare professional before taking ibuprofen if you meet any of the following criteria (Amundsen, 2015; FDA, 2018):
- You’re pregnant
- You’re over age 60
- Have stomach problems, including heartburn
- Have kidney problems or liver issues
- Experience high blood pressure
- Live with heart disease
- You take blood thinners like coumadin (brand name Warfarin)
- You take diuretics (also called water pills)
- You’re taking other NSAIDs (like aspirin, naproxen, or diclofenac)
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Taking ibuprofen while breastfeeding is considered safe (LactMed, 2021; Davanzo 2014). In general, you should not take more than 1,200 mg of ibuprofen within 24 hours (Ngo, 2021; FDA, 2018).
- Abu Esba, L. C., Alqahtani, R. A., Thomas, A., Shamas, N., Alswaidan, L., & Mardawi, G. (2021). Ibuprofen and NSAID Use in COVID-19 Infected Patients Is Not Associated with Worse Outcomes: A Prospective Cohort Study. Infectious Diseases and Therapy, 10(1), 253–268. doi: 10.1007/s40121-020-00363-w. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33135113/
- Amundsen, S., Nordeng, H., Nezvalová-Henriksen, K., Stovner, L. J., & Spigset, O. (2015). Pharmacological treatment of migraine during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Nature Reviews. Neurology, 11(4), 209–219. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2015.29. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25776823/
- Davanzo, R., Bua, J., Paloni, G., & Facchina, G. (2014). Breastfeeding and migraine drugs. European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 70(11), 1313–1324. doi: 10.1007/s00228-014-1748-0. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25217187/
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed). Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2006. Ibuprofen. (Updated 2021, January 18). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500986/
- Ershad, M., Ameer, M. A., Vearrier, D. Ibuprofen Toxicity. (Updated 2021, February 11). StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526078/
- Malik, K., & Dua, A. Prostaglandins. (Updated 2021, April 19). StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553155/
- Ngo, V. T. H., Bajaj, T. Ibuprofen. (Updated 2021, March 2). StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542299/
- Queremel Milani, D. A., Davis, D. D. Pain Management Medications. (Updated 2021, February 13). StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560692/
- Solomon, D. (2020, August). NSAIDs: Adverse cardiovascular effects. UpToDate. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/nsaids-adverse-cardiovascular-effects
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018, October). Advil, label. Retrieved from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2018/018989Orig1s090lbl.pdf
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.