For Those Holiday Headaches…

The holiday season is fast approaching. What does that mean? It means our days will inevitably be filled with more stress from work, from last minute shopping, from finding the perfect Christmas tree, and a million other things that need to be finished in time.

For those annoying holiday headaches, I have put together a bit of information that I learned last semester to 1. help to diagnose your kind of headache and 2. find the best OTC analgesic to use (OTC is Over-The-Counter, and analgesic is a pain medication).

What Kind of Headache Do I Have?

  • Tension- Usually located on both sides of the head, with pain mainly affecting the top of the head (but could radiate down to the neck of sides of the head). You may be experiencing tightness or an aching feeling in the scalp.
  • Migraine – Usually only affects one side of the head. These kinds of headaches are usually accompanied by nausea/vomiting and a sensitivity to lights and sounds. The pain is more throbbing in nature.
  • Sinus – The pain will usually be felt on the face, forehead and/or behind the eyes. These kinds of headaches are usually due to nasal congestion.

*Disclaimer 1 – Migraines are very common, and there are medications made specifically for this kind of headache over the counter, but if you find yourself having several of these severe kinds of headaches without any relief, you should no longer self treat and you should get diagnosed by a doctor.


What Options Are Available For Me?

The pain reliever aisle in the pharmacy can be awfully confusing, even for pharmacy students. There are about 50 different products, but the funny thing is, they all contain 1 of 3 main pain killers. So, they really aren’t different at all, they just vary by brand.

The three major pain killers are: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin. All of these options exist over the counter, yet some options are not appropriate for everyone.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Acetaminophen is usually the “go-to” medication, because it is safe in most populations. Acetaminophen can be used for mild-moderate pain and also for fever relief. This pain reliever can be used safely while pregnant. You should not take over 4 g/day (4000 mg). Do not take if you have consumed over 3 alcoholic beverages in a day. Be aware that continued use of this medication over a long period of time, or use with alcoholic beverages can increase your risk of liver damage.

Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

Ibuprofen is an NSAID, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug; this means that it can be used for mild-moderate pain, fever relief, and also inflammation. Stomach upset may occur while taking this class of medication; ibuprofen taken with food, milk or antacids may help these symptoms. Taking NSAIDs can increase your risks of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach bleeding or heart failure.


To be honest, I would never recommend aspirin for a pain reliever. But, it is in the aisle with the other pain relievers, so I will mention a little about it. Aspirin is a salicylate. Low dose aspirin is usually indicated for heart health. The maximum amount of aspirin to be taken is 4 g/day, but up to 6 g/day is needed to achieve pain relief. So, therefore it isn’t really worth taking for pain purposes. If you do choose to take aspirin, be aware that it is an antiplatelet drug — your blood cells have more trouble forming blood clots. This can affect those taking any blood thinners, patients with diabetes, patients with gout, etc.

*Disclaimer 2 – Not all headaches can be treated over the counter. As a matter of fact, some groups of people cannot be treated over the counter at all. Exclusions to self-care are as follows: an undiagnosed migraine, headaches lasting over 10 days with no relief, severe symptoms or head pain, pregnant women in their last trimester of pregnancy, children under the age of 8, headaches that are accompanied by a high fever that won’t go down, and those persons who consume over 3 alcoholic beverages per day. 

To recap: acetaminophen is usually a safe bet for most patients. Ibuprofen has the same affects as acetaminophen, but also has anti-inflammatory properties. Aspirin should just be taken for heart health, from my personal perspective. I hope this information is able to help get you through the holidays (and the rest of the year, too!). This is only a small bit of information about each of these classes of medications — always remember to do your research when taking a new medication, even if it is over the counter. Always be sure to consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

Till next time,




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