How does paracetamol work?

Scientists are still learning exactly how paracetamol works. Paracetamol is thought to reduce the intensity of pain signals to the brain and reduce fever. Unlike non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), paracetamol has minimal effect in relieving inflammation. This is an important consideration as some types of body pain (like osteoarthritis pain) are caused by inflammation.

Paracetamol is generally well tolerated when taken as directed, but like all pain relievers should not be taken for more than a few days without medical advice.

What is paracetamol used for?

Paracetamol purchased over-the-counter without a prescription is commonly used to provide temporary relief of pain and discomfort associated with:

  • Headaches (e.g. migraines, tension headaches)
  • Muscle pain (e.g. strains and sprains, sport injuries)
  • Backache
  • Toothache
  • Muscle ache
  • Arthritis (including osteoarthritis)
  • Cold and flu symptoms

Paracetamol also reduces fever.

History of paracetamol

Paracetamol was invented in 1893.

Paracetamol vs ibuprofen: what’s the difference?

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

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

Paracetamol is a different type of pain reliever than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin. Paracetamol mainly acts centrally (via the brain), while ibuprofen, aspirin and other NSAIDs mainly act at the site of pain.

  Ibuprofen Paracetamol
Type of medicine Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (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, Mediz Panadol, Ethics Paracetamol, Paracare, Pharmacare Paracetamol, Apo-Osteo, Paracetamol Osteo-Tab