Wellness

What's the Best Medicine for a Headache?

Alexis Bryan08 Nov 2021

Simple pain relievers are the best medicine for minor headache relief. These medicines include acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. While all of these are effective medicines for headaches, each one has pros and cons to consider.

It is important to know what types of headache medications are available over the counter and which are only available by prescription. If you get frequent headaches, it may be beneficial to visit a doctor to get an appropriate prescription. By signing up for Mira, you can access exclusive discounts on prescription medications, low-cost urgent care visits, and affordable lab testing for just $45 per month.

Best Medicine For Each Type of Headache

As a general rule, acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen are good options for over-the-counter (OTC) headache medication. There is no “best” medicine for a headache because each medicine can work differently from person to person. There are also different types of headaches that call for different types of treatment. Below we outline three different types of headaches and medication that can be used to alleviate symptoms. 

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches usually start gradually and radiate all over the head. They are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck regions. Triggers for headaches include stress, dehydration, and muscle strain. 

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Dull head pain
  • Pressure around the forehead
  • Tenderness around the forehead and scalp
  • Sometimes a tension headache can lead to sensitivity to light and loud noise, similar to migraines, but do not have all of the symptoms of a migraine

Ibuprofen or aspirin are good OTC options to get rid of a tension headache. Additionally, drinking water can help relieve tension headaches. If OTC drugs are not enough to treat your headache, a healthcare provider may give you a prescription for medication, such as:

  • Indomethacin
  • Ketorolac
  • Naproxen
  • Opiates
  • Prescription-strength acetaminophen
  • If pain relievers do not work, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant to stop muscle contractions

Sinus Headaches

Seasonal allergies and the common cold are the most common causes of this type of headache. While they do not cause a sinus headache directly, sinus congestion (a stuffy nose) leads to sinus pressure, pain, and infection. Besides facial pain, sinus headaches cause other symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Stuffy nose
  • Thick, colored mucus discharge from the nose
  • Feeling of fullness in the ears
  • Swollen or puffy face

A true sinus headache develops because of a sinus infection (sinusitis). The infection causes pain and pressure in the sinuses, behind your eyes and face. Sinus headaches usually radiate in the area around the sinuses or forehead area. Sinus headaches can also present with nasal congestion. 

To treat a sinus headache, you can take ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for the headache symptoms, but there are also options to treat the underlying causes. These include:

  • Antihistamines to prevent allergy symptoms
  • Decongestants to reduce swelling in the nose and sinuses, such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have been taking a decongestant for more than three days.
  • Pain relievers to ease headache pain
  • Steroids to reduce inflammation

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches usually radiate on one side of the head. Migraines start suddenly instead of gradually and can be accompanied by other symptoms like light and sound sensitivity, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Many people who suffer from migraines may also experience an ‘aura’ before the migraine begins.

Any OTC pain medicine can be used to treat headache symptoms of a migraine, but may not be able to treat all symptoms. Oftentimes, prescription medicine is the best option for treating migraines, especially if you get them often. Triptans are the most widely used class of prescription drugs for migraines.

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In the table below, we summarize the best over-the-counter and prescription medications to treat tension headaches, sinus headaches, and migraines. 

Best Medication for Tension Headache, Sinus Headache, and Migraine 

Type of HeadacheBest Medicines
Tension

Over the Counter

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Aspirin
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

Prescription

  • Indomethacin
  • Ketorolac
  • Naproxen
  • Opiates
  • Prescription-strength acetaminophen
  • Muscle relaxers
Sinus

Over the Counter

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

Decongestants can also help in the treatment of chronic sinusitis by keeping mucus loose and nasal passages clear. 

Prescription

  • Mucinex
  • Fluticasone (Flonase)
  • Beclomethasone (Beconase)
  • Oxymetazoline (Afrin)
  • Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
Migraine

Over the Counter

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen,
  • A combination of pain medications and caffeine

Prescription

  • Triptans like Sumatriptan (Imitrex), Zolmitriptan (Zomig), and Rizatriptan (Maxalt)

Source: Harvard Health

In addition to medicine, there are ways to reduce the symptoms of, and potentially prevent headaches in the first place. Staying hydrated, getting adequate movement, and managing your stress levels are all important to reduce your risk of headaches and migraines.

Acetaminophen vs. Ibuprofen vs. Naproxen vs. Aspirin For Headaches

When deciding which medicine will treat your headache best, you should consider your headache symptoms and any existing health conditions. It can be difficult to choose between the many available over-the-counter medications, so talk to your healthcare provider if you are unsure which medication to use.

Headache Medicine Quick Tips

  • People with kidney problems should avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This includes Advil, Aleve, Aspirin, and any other medication with ibuprofen.
  • People with liver problems should avoid acetaminophen (brand Tylenol) because it can make liver conditions worse.
  • For children under 12 years of age, acetaminophen is preferred for a fever.
  • Make sure to avoid alcohol while taking any of these medications.
  • For people with an aspirin allergy, acetaminophen is usually a good choice.

Below we outline some of the pros, cons, and side effects of different medications you can take to treat a headache. 

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Pros, Cons & Side Effects of Acetaminophen vs Ibuprofen vs Naproxen vs Aspirin

MedicationSide EffectsProsCons
Acetaminophen
  • Skin rash
  • Nausea
  • Great to lower fevers in children
  • Safest in elderly patients without liver problems
  • Can cause liver toxicity
Ibuprofen
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) tract effects
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Lasts 6-8 hours
  • Can cause kidney toxicity
  • Can cause stomach bleeding if used too often
  • Interacts with many heart medications
Naproxen
  • GI tract effects
  • Dizziness
  • Rash
  • Fatigue
  • Last up to 12 hours
  • Interacts with many heart medications
Aspirin
  • High doses can cause GI effects
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Can provide secondary prevention for stroke patients

Headache Medicine Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When it comes to medicine for a headache, you have options to choose from. Dr. Liz Jane helps answer a few common questions about medicine for headaches. Dr. Jane is a medical doctor specializing in pharmacology, internal medicine, oncology, and immunology.

What is the best medicine for a headache?

Pain relievers are the first drugs recommended by any doctor for headaches. Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are common pain relievers that can be bought over the counter. If your headache does not go away after using over-the-counter painkillers, then you need to see a doctor.

For some people, especially those who get migraines, prescription medication might be the best treatment for a headache. Headaches can cause significant impairment and prevent you from working or doing daily activities. If you experience painful headaches often, be sure to talk to your doctor to determine the best course of treatment.

When should I take medicine if I have a headache?

You should take medicine if your headache is preventing you from doing your normal daily activities. If you are experiencing a migraine, it is most effective to take medicine as soon as you feel one coming on. Over-the-counter medicine is recommended, but when the headache is persistent and does not go away, you should see a doctor reassess and potentially prescribe medication for you.

Be sure to also check the warnings on headache medicines before taking them. Certain medicines are not appropriate for people with existing medical conditions. For example, people with liver problems should take caution before taking acetaminophen.

What are migraine triggers?

Migraine triggers are what cause a migraine. These triggers vary from person to person but usually stay the same for an individual. The most common migraine triggers include:

  • Changing weather: rising humidity, heat
  • Lack of sleep or oversleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional stress
  • Sensory triggers: bright or flickering lights, loud noises, strong smells
  • Dietary triggers:
  • Missing a meal
  • Alcohol, especially red wine
  • Chocolate
  • Nitrates in cured meats and fish
  • Aged cheese
  • An increase or decrease in caffeine
  • MSG (often present in prepared foods)

How can I save money on headache medication? 

Especially if you get frequent headaches, the cost of medications can quickly add up. Below we outline some tips to save money on medications to treat headaches. 

  • When possible, get the generic option of your medication. Generic medications are exactly the same as their brand-name counterparts but can be significantly less expensive.
  • If you require prescription medications to treat your headaches, sign up for Mira today. With MiraRx, you can get up to 80% off your prescription medications.
  • If you purchase pain relievers in bulk, rather than in small packs, you may reduce the cost of your medication.

Bottom Line 

Fortunately, most headaches can be treated by over-the-counter pain relief medicines including acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These drugs can be found at your local pharmacy, which will have generic and brand name forms.

If you experience persistent or frequent headaches, you might need a prescription for headache-specific medicines. Join Mira today to get up to 80% off of most prescription medications.

This article is informed in part by the medical professionals at Curist.