Over-the-Counter Medications for Headaches

Published: February 01, 2022
By Amanda Day, 2022 PharmD Candidate

Nothing ruins a good day quite like a headache. Headaches are extremely common and come in a number of different varieties. Luckily, there are many effective treatments for headaches, including over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Your pharmacist can help you select the right OTC medication.

Common types of headaches

If you talk to your pharmacist about your headache, one of the first things they may do is try to determine the type of headache you have.

Primary headaches are those that are not a symptom of another condition but are a condition in their own right. The International Headache Society classifies primary headaches into the following types:

  • Tension headaches are characterized by dull or throbbing moderately intense pain located all around the head.
  • Migraine headaches are associated with pain on only one side of the head, sensitivity to light and sound. They may be accompanied by a visual disturbance like seeing a flash of light.
  • Cluster headaches are intensely painful and may last weeks to months.

Secondary headaches are caused by another medical condition, such as sinus pressure, caffeine withdrawal, or a head injury.

OTC medications for headache pain relief

Your pharmacist is a great resource for helping you find an OTC medication to treat your headache pain.  They can also help you with proper dosing, side effects, and tell you when to see your doctor. They can guide you toward the best OTC headache treatment by asking you questions about other medical conditions and medications you may be taking.

  • Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin block substances in the body responsible for pain and inflammation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) works by reducing how the body senses pain.
  • Headache pain reliever products may also include a combination of medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine.

Talk to your doctor if:

  • You experience “thunderclap headaches,” which are excruciatingly painful headaches that happen quickly from no apparent reason
  • You experience migraine-like symptoms for the first time

Talk to your pharmacist before taking an OTC medication if you have one of the conditions:

  • You are in your third trimester of pregnancy (NSAIDs)
  • You have a history of liver disease (acetaminophen)

Non-medication changes may offer relief

It should be noted that it is possible to prevent or relieve headache pain by making certain changes. For example:

  • Identify and avoid factors that may worsen your headache, such as overly strenuous exercise, flashing lights, loud noises, or certain foods.
  • Practice stress management and relaxation techniques to reduce the frequency of chronic headaches.
  • Apply a cold compress to your head for up to 20 minutes at a time to reduce pain and inflammation.


Although headaches may be an unavoidable nuisance for some people, effective treatment options are available to minimize the duration and pain. Your pharmacist is a great resource to help you find the best treatment.

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