Some nonprescription medicines commonly used to treat headache

Most people with headache use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines at some point. This is because they are easy to obtain and their cost is low compared to prescription medicine. In fact, by the time the average patient reaches a headache specialist, they have tried on average more than two OTC treatments. OTCs are sometimes called “non-specific” medicines because they work for many different types of pain, not just migraine or other types of headache.

Research shows that on average headache sufferers received 4.5 medicines over more than 10 years before receiving a medicine developed specifically for migraine from a health care provider. Table 1 lists some of the most commonly used OTC medications for headache and their active ingredients.

Table 1—Some nonprescription medicines commonly used to treat headache.

Brand name Ingredients (per tablet or capsule)
Aleve Naproxen sodium 220mg
Advil Ibuprofen 200mg
Bayer Enteric coated Aspirin 325mg
Anacin Aspirin 400mg, Caffeine 32 mg
Excedrin migraine Aspirin 250mg, Acetaminophen 250mg, caffeine 65mg*
Excedrin tension headache Acetaminophen 500mg, caffeine 65mg*
Tylenol regular strength Acetaminophen 325mg
Motrin IB Ibuprofen 200mg
Sudafed/Excedrin sinus Pseudoephedrine or Phenylephrine

* A typical 8 ounce serving of brewed coffee contains at least 100mg of caffeine

Prescription medicines for headache fall into four main categories:Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, usually called “NSAIDs“;

Morphine-like narcotic drugs, usually called “opioids“;

Butalbital Fioricet and isometheptene mucate containing compounds

Triptan or ergotamine medications.

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