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Analgesic (painkiller) facts

What are analgesics?

Effects of analgesics

Getting help

Non-medical analgesic use in Australia

What are analgesics?

Analgesics, also known as "painkillers", are medicines which relieve pain. Most analgesics are safe to use when taken as prescribed or instructed by your doctor or pharmacist, in conjunction with the manufacturer’s instructions on the packaging. Some extra precautions may apply to patients with pre-existing medical conditions such as kidney failure or gastric ulcers.

This page outlines some commonly used over-the-counter analgesics, including what they are used for, possible side effects and risks associated with using them outside the directions on the packet. The painkillers covered are:

  • aspirin
  • codeine (in combination products)
  • ibuprofen
  • paracetamol.

Other names

Analgesics are known by their chemical (generic) names and their brand or trade names. Some common examples include:

Generic name
Brand names
Aspirin Aspro Clear®, Disprin®
Aspirin and codeine Aspalgin®, Codral Cold & Flu Original®
Ibuprofen Brufen®, Nurofen®
Ibuprofen and codeine Nurofen Plus®
Paracetamol Dymadon®, Lemsip®, Panadol®, Panamax®, Tylenol®
Paracetamol and codeine Panadeine Forte®, Panamax Co®
Paracetamol, codeine and doxylamine Mersyndol® and Mersyndol Forte®, Panalgesic®

 

What do they look like?

Analgesics are available in many forms. These include tablets, capsules, suppositories, soluble powders and liquids.

How are analgesics used?

Analgesics are generally swallowed, and their intended purpose is to relieve pain. Some can also be used to reduce fever, help relieve the symptoms of cold and ’flu, reduce inflammation and swelling, control diarrhoea, and suppress coughs.

Some people misuse analgesics by intentionally taking more than the recommended dose, in a mistaken attempt to increase the effects, to get 'high', or as an act of self-harm.

Effects of analgesics

The effects of any drug vary from person to person. How analgesics affect a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it. The effects of analgesics, as with any drug, also depend on the amount taken.

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Read about the effects of individual analgesics:


Long-term effects

Long-term use of analgesics can lead to a psychological dependence. People who are dependent on analgesics find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.

Other effects of analgesic use

Taking analgesics with other drugs

The effects of mixing analgesics with other drugs, including alcohol, prescription medications and other over-the-counter medicines, are often unpredictable. Some examples of these are:

  • Drinking alcohol while taking aspirin and ibuprofen can increase the risk of stomach irritation and discomfort.
  • Aspirin and ibuprofen can alter the effects of some blood pressure medicines and may increase the risk of bleeding if taken with medicines such as warfarin.
  • Taking codeine with other drugs such as benzodiazepines, certain antidepressants and certain antihistamines, can increase the depressive effects and reduce the breathing rate.
  • Naltrexone blocks the effects of codeine and other opioids.


Check with your doctor or pharmacist for more information.

Social problems

All areas of a person’s life can be affected by drug use.

  • Disagreements and frustration over drug use can cause family arguments and affect personal relationships.
  • Legal and health problems can also add to the strain on personal, financial and work relationships.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

There is generally no increased risk of birth defects if taking over-the-counter analgesics while pregnant. However, there are some risks including:

  • premature closing of the heart duct through which blood bypasses the lungs of the baby in the womb, if aspirin and ibuprofen are taken late in the pregnancy.
  • prolonged labour and bleeding difficulties if aspirin and ibuprofen are taken close to the birth.
  • withdrawal symptoms after the birth if the mother has taken large doses of codeine late in the pregnancy.


Check with your doctor or other health professional if you are using or planning to use analgesics or any other drugs during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Read more about drug use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Getting help

Treatment

In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone’s use of analgesics

If you are concerned about someone’s drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using analgesics, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

Find out more about overdose.

Non-medical analgesic use in Australia

Find statistics about the use of analgesics in Australia.

National drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug, through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.

Educational resources on analgesics

Find free resources on analgesics.

Search the ADF Shop for resources on analgesics.



This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Analgesics, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet contact DrugInfo. Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.

Last updated: 24 June 2014

 
Information you heard is intended as a general guide only. This audio is copyrighted by the Australian Drug Foundation. Visit www.DrugInfo.ADF.org.au for more