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Using Ibuprofen to Treat Headaches

By

Updated May 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Close-up of a person holding pills and a glass of water
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What Ibuprofen Is:

Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Physicians have been using ibuprofen to treat headaches for years. It can be purchased over the counter, but larger doses are available by prescription. It is used to control pain and inflammation caused by a variety of conditions, including migraines and headaches, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and muscle aches. Ibuprofen can also be used to reduce fever.

How Ibuprofen Works:

Ibuprofen blocks a substance in the body called cyclooxygenase (COX), which then blocks the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are important chemicals involved in such processes as pain, inflammation and temperature control.

Potential Side Effects:

The most common side effect is gastrointestinal discomfort or upset. Ibuprofen, like all of the NSAIDs, can cause irritation of the stomach lining and can lead to ulceration of the stomach. Some patients may notice an increase in their blood pressure, so those being treated for hypertension should be especially careful.

Other common side effects include constipation, diarrhea, gas or bloating, dizziness, nervousness, and ringing in the ears. Call your physician if these get severe or worsen with time.

Side Effects That Warrant Immediate Attention:

Call your health care practitioner immediately should you experience any of the following:

  • allergic reactions like skin rash, itching or hives, swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
  • black or bloody stools, blood in the urine or in vomit
  • breathing problems
  • visual changes
  • chest pain
  • general ill feeling or flu-like symptoms
  • nausea or vomiting
  • redness, blistering, peeling or loosening of the skin
  • slurred speech or weakness on one side of the body
  • stomach pain
  • unexplained weight gain or swelling
  • unusual fatigue
  • yellowing of eyes or skin

Major Drug Interactions:

If you take one of the following medications you should not take ibuprofen:

  • cidofovir
  • ketorolac
  • methotrexate
  • pemetrexed
Ibuprofen may also interact with other medications and substances such as:
  • alcohol
  • aspirin
  • diuretics
  • lithium
  • other drugs for inflammation like prednisone
  • warfarin

Always check with your health care provider about how ibuprofen may interact with other medications you are taking.

Typical Doses:

Your health care provider will help you determine what the correct dose is based on your underlying medical problems, current medications, and other factors. Over-the-counter ibuprofen tablets contain 200 mg of medication, and this is generally safe to take up to three times per day. Higher doses can be prescribed if necessary. The maximum daily dose for an adult is usually considered to be 800 mg three times per day. Parents should call a pediatrician to determine the correct dose for their children. Do not take for longer than 7 days without consulting a doctor.

Pregnancy Concerns:

Ibuprofen is pregnancy class C, meaning that there is no definite evidence about whether or not it is safe to take in pregnancy. Make sure you discuss its use with your obstetrician before taking ibuprofen. It is strictly contraindicated in the third trimester of pregnancy, however, because it can cause birth defects.

Who Makes Ibuprofen? In What Forms Can I Get It:

Ibuprofen comes in a wide variety of forms, including tablets, gelcaps, liquid, and infant drops. Common brands include Advil and < Motrin. It is also found in some combination cold and flu products. Be sure to read labels carefully to be sure of the amount of ibuprofen you are taking.

Sources:

"Ibuprofen. Medline Plus Website, U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Accessed January 13, 2010.

"Ibuprofen Tablets." Express Scripts Drug Digest Website. Accessed January 13, 2010.

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