How does ibuprofen work?

Ibuprofen helps relieve pain and reduce inflammation by stopping the body producing large amounts of natural chemicals called prostaglandins when you have an illness or injury.

Prostaglandins are released into your body when you are sick or injured, making nearby nerves more sensitive to pain. This helps your body realise something is wrong. So when you put your hand on something sharp, the nearby nerves tell your brain, which sends a message that your hand hurts.

Prostaglandins also make tissues inflamed and swollen – they are one of the reasons why you get a sore throat when you are sick and why a sprained ankle becomes swollen and painful.

Because ibuprofen blocks the production of prostaglandins throughout the body, it can be used to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

What are the different types of ibuprofen available?

Ibuprofen comes in a range of different formulations. The two most common are oral formulations, which can be swallowed with water, and topical formulations, which are applied to the skin.

After you swallow an ibuprofen tablet, capsule, or caplet, it ends up in your stomach where it begins to dissolve. As the tablet, capsule, or caplet dissolves, ibuprofen is released and then absorbed into your bloodstream. Once ibuprofen is absorbed into the bloodstream, it travels throughout the body to start blocking the production of prostaglandins, which helps to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

In recent years, new formulations of ibuprofen have been developed. Two examples are ibuprofen lysine and ibuprofen sodium dihydrate. The ibuprofen sodium dihydrate formulation is absorbed up to twice as fast as standard formulations of ibuprofen. 

Formulations made for use in children and infants are also available. Children’s liquid ibuprofen can be used for infants and children from 3 months of age. Soft chewable capsules can be used in children from 7 years of age. 

What is ibuprofen used for?

At over-the-counter doses, ibuprofen is used to provide temporary relief of pain and/or inflammation associated with:

  • Headache, including migraine headache and tension headache
  • Muscular pain
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Period pain
  • Back pain
  • Dental pain
  • Arthritic pain
  • Sinus pain

Ibuprofen also reduces fever.

Ibuprofen vs paracetamol: types of pain relievers

Pain relievers available in your supermarket or pharmacy can be divided into two groups:

  • Those that mainly act at the site of the pain
  • Those that are thought to mainly act centrally – in the brain

Ibuprofen, aspirin, and other NSAIDs work by blocking pain signals mainly at the site of pain.

Paracetamol is a different kind of pain reliever that is thought to act mainly in the central nervous system (the brain). 

What’s the difference? Ibuprofen vs paracetamol

  Ibuprofen Paracetamol
Type of medicine NSAID Analgesic
How it works Blocks pain signals mainly at the site of pain Thought to work mainly centrally (via the brain) to reduce intensity of pain signals
Common brand names Nurofen, Advil, Brufen, Ibugesic, I-Profen, Medix Panadol, Ethics Paracetamol, Paracare, Pharmacare Paracetamol, Apo-Osteo, Paracetamol Osteo-Tab


History of ibuprofen

Ibuprofen was discovered and developed in the 1950s and 1960s by the research arm of the UK-based сompany Boots, led by Dr Stewart Adams and Dr John Nicholson. Boots sold their ibuprofen product to Reckitt Benckiser in 2005.

What is an NSAID?

NSAIDs (short for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) help to relieve pain and reduce inflammation by blocking the production of pain-causing chemicals called prostaglandins.

There are many types of NSAIDs available in both supermarkets and pharmacies. Over-the-counter NSAIDs that you can select for yourself include aspirin, diclofenac, naproxen, and ibuprofen. Other NSAIDs are available with a prescription from your doctor.