Who Among Us Knows When to Take Advil vs. Tylenol?

Illustration for article titled Who Among Us Knows When to Take Advil vs. Tylenol?

There are a lot of things that, much to my embarrassment, I have only learned recently. One thing is that the word “segue” is not “segway.” The other is when to take ibuprofen and when to take acetaminophen. The former is a perfectly acceptable thing to eventually discover; the other is a massive failure of civilization.


Let me explain: I didn’t know segue was spelled like segue because I’d only heard it said aloud. Then one day I stumbled across it in print and realized the error. Then I had to wonder how I had gotten through a lifetime of perfectly varied reading and never come across it, and it occurred to me that it was entirely possible that maybe almost no one was using it. Maybe tons of people had no idea how that word was really spelled. What if scores of writers purposely dodged segue the way you might just reconstruct a sentence when you can’t figure out how to conjugate it correctly.

But this ibuprofen vs. acetaminophen thing? This is a travesty. There is no excuse for the difference between acetaminophen and ibuprofen not being posted at every street corner, disseminated in every learning environment and reiterated by every socializing institution there is. Because the alternative is ignorance. I’ve gone my whole life not knowing the difference between the two in spite of being an active learner, a reader, a user of the Internet, a person who will ask a question to learn more. For shame, civilization. For shame. I blame you.

Or perhaps the real reason I reached for whatever pain reliever was available without question was because I hadn’t engaged with the medical industry all that much. For most of my life we did not have health insurance, so I went to the doctor approximately one time before I was 19, to a walk-in clinic, in elementary school. That’s it. Perhaps my mother did not know the difference, nor did her mother, nor did hers, and we all exist as an unbroken chain of indiscriminate OTC pain reliever users who have reached blindly into medicine cabinets and shoved whatever was there into our gullets none the wiser.

But no. As I’ve moved through the world and met all types of people including those who see doctors routinely, I’ve learned that lots of people have no idea the difference between these two staggeringly common medications taken by millions of people every week.

And I pose this question to you, reader, and the world at large: Whose job it is it to tell the American people when Advil is good and when Tylenol is good? Answer me this. Whose job? Where are us regular non-medical schooled people who may or may not roll up on a doctor sometimes supposed to learn which is which, what is what, why anything exists, and how the hell to correctly numb the pain of existence depending on the injury? Where is this information guarded? Who holds the key? What other things don’t I know? Next you’ll tell me it isn’t perfectly OK to use Neosporin from 2011 even if you didn’t notice it was expired until 2013. Nothing makes sense anymore.

Here’s how I found out there there is a time and a place for ibuprofen and a time and a place for acetaminophen: I had a baby. The first time the baby had a fever/ear infection, we called her pediatrician, who explained like it was the most common knowledge in the world that we could alternate Tylenol and Advil or Motrin so as to not have as many side effects and maintain a consistent pain relief over several hours.


My mind was blown. She went on to explain things like that you don’t even have to treat a child’s fever if it’s under 102 and if the child is otherwise comfortable and not showing visible signs of lethargy or acute pain. I had to stop and ask her to repeat what she’d said, this thing about how you shouldn’t immediately numb all pain the second you feel it and also that you can alternate the pain meds for a one-two punch. I thought back over all the times in my life when I used acetaminophen for inflammation, and ibuprofen for general pain and my world slowly began to shatter like an exploding disco ball into a million fragments, all numbed in a highly specialized yet varied way I’d never been aware of because ignorance.

But there’s good news: Over at the Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy confirms that maybe we are all dumb:

When a headache, back pain or other complaint strikes, many people believe Advil, Tylenol and other over-the-counter analgesics are pretty much interchangeable. Far from it.






Here’s the deal, according to Reddy’s reporting: Both are fine for fevers, most pain, headaches. Advil might have a “slight edge” in terms of pain relief in that arena, though. Ibuprofen is more for inflammation, so, sports injuries, your classic period cramps, lower back pain, and arthritis. Acetaminophen may block pain receptors in your brain, but your liver will not thank you. And, recent studies show acetaminophen “blunts” emotional pain, so save that for your breakup, but not if you’re also drinking. Reddy notes that all pain relievers should be taken with water, at least four ounces, but NSAIDs need food in your stomach. NSAIDs like in ibuprofen, used longterm, can cause stomach pain and intestinal bleeding. Acetaminophen might have overall fewer side effects, too, especially for people with chronic kidney or gastrointestinal problems.


If you need to treat pain or fever over a long period, alternating the two is a good, lower side-effect combo. Also: Painkillers feel really, really good and chill. That’s not in her article. But I would just like to add that they do.

Reddy notes additional caveats to be aware of with this stuff, because it’s kind of complicated and depending on your particular issue and medical history, you shouldn’t make this choice in a vacuum. You probably should be discussing this with your doctor. Try to go to a doctor. Because if you don’t, you might not find out until you are in your 30s and then you’ll just have to feel bad about it. My non-medical advice is to try to always stay closer to the truth, not far from it. #segue


Image via Shutterstock.

Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.



I’m an Aleve girl. Headache? Aleve. Cramps? Aleve. Joint pain? Aleve.