What is ibuprofen? What do I use ibuprofen for?

How does ibuprofen work? Where did it come from? What can you use ibuprofen for? Here you’ll find answers to commonly asked questions about ibuprofen.

Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), a type of medicine that’s commonly used for pain relief and to bring down fever. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists ibuprofen as one of the most important medicines needed in a basic health system.

There are many different brand names for ibuprofen and you’ll find products with ibuprofen sold in grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores. You’ll also find formulations designed for adults and children.

How does ibuprofen work?

Ibuprofen stops the body from producing large amounts of prostaglandins when you have an illness or injury.

Prostaglandins are natural chemicals that are released into your body when you are injured or sick. When prostaglandins are released, they make nearby nerves very sensitive to pain – which helps your body realise something is wrong. So when you put your hand on something sharp, the nearby nerves tell your brain, which quickly sends a message that your hand hurts.

Prostaglandins also make tissues inflamed and swollen–they are one of the reasons your throat swells up when you are sick and your nose gets blocked when you have a cold. Prostaglandins are also a reason why a sprained ankle becomes swollen and stiff.

Because ibuprofen blocks the production of prostaglandins, it works at the site of pain 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.

Oral ibuprofen – Ibuprofen tablets, capsules or liquids can be taken with water. After you take an ibuprofen tablet, it ends up in your stomach where it begins to dissolve. As the tablet dissolves, ibuprofen is released. It’s then absorbed into your bloodstream through your stomach wall.

In recent years, new types of ibuprofen have been developed. Two examples are ibuprofen lysine, and sodium ibuprofen – both of which are salt forms of ibuprofen and the latter is absorbed up to twice as fast as standard Nurofen*.

Once ibuprofen is absorbed into the bloodstream, it starts blocking prostaglandins from being released, which helps reduce pain and inflammation.

Ibuprofen tablets and capsules are not suitable for infants and children, so children’s liquid formulations are available. Children’s liquid ibuprofen can be used from 3 months.

Topical ibuprofen– Topical ibuprofen comes as a cream or gel and is applied directly onto painful parts of the body. It is absorbed into the skin, at the site of pain. One advantage of using a topical formulation is that most of the drug doesn’t reach other parts of the body, such as the stomach, where side effects may occur.

 *Results from a scientific review of over-the-counter pain relievers, including standard and fast-acting formulations of ibuprofen.

What is ibuprofen used for?

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

  • Headaches (e.g. migraines, tension headaches)
  • Muscle pain (e.g. strains and sprains, sport injuries)
  • Fever
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Period pain
  • Back pain
  • Dental pain
  • Joint pain (e.g. arthritic pain)
  • Sinus pain

Ibuprofen vs paracetamol: types of pain relievers

Pain relievers available in your grocery store 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 and spine)


Ibuprofen, aspirin and other NSAIDs mainly act at the site of pain. Due to this mode of action, these types of pain relievers can be said to provide pain relief at the site of pain.

No one knows exactly how paracetamol works, but it is thought to act mainly centrally. 

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE? IBUPROFEN VS PARACETAMOL

History of ibuprofen

Ibuprofen was developed and discovered in the 1950s by the research arm of the Boots Company in the UK (now owned by Reckitt Benckiser). The leaders of the team were Dr Stewart Adams and his colleagues John Nicholson and Colin Burrows.

Today, ibuprofen is used as an over-the-counter remedy by millions of people to relieve pain and fever, and is still widely used as a prescription-only medicine to managepain associated with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

What is an NSAID?

NSAIDs(short for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) help relieve pain and reduce inflammationby blocking the production of pain-causing chemicals called prostaglandins.

There are many types of NSAIDs available both in grocery stores and pharmacies. Over-the-counter NSAIDs that you can select for yourself include aspirin, diclofenac, naproxen and ibuprofen.

Other stronger NSAIDs are available with a prescription from your doctor.

Precautions

Do not take ibuprofen:

If you have a stomach ulcer or other stomach disorders, kidney or heart problems.

If you are allergic to ibuprofen, aspirin or other anti-inflammatory medicines. If you have an allergic reaction, stop taking ibuprofen and see your doctor immediately.

During the first 6 months of pregnancy, except on your doctor’s advice. Do not use at all during the last 3 months of pregnancy.

Ibuprofen overdose

If you think you may have taken too much ibuprofen (an overdose), contact the Poisons Information Centre immediately for advice:

  • in Australia, call 131 126
  • in New Zealand call 0800 764 766;

The recommended maximum daily dose of ibuprofen is:

  • 1200mg/day for adults and children over 12 years
  • 800mg/day for children 7-12 years

Try our ibuprofen dosage calculator to calculate the right dose for younger children. Do not exceed stated dose. Seek medical advice before giving to children under 12 months. Do not give to babies under 3 months.

Always read the label. Use only as directed. Incorrect use could be harmful. If symptoms persist consult your healthcare professional. Seek medical advice before giving to children under 12 months. Do not give to babies under 3 months.
All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health related matters please contact your doctor.
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References: 
  • Grosser Tet al. Chapter 34. In: Brunton LL, Chabner BA, Knollmann BC (eds). Goodman & Gilman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. 12th ed.

  • Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists and Faculty of Pain Medicine. Acute pain management: scientific evidence. Third edition 2010.

  • O'Callaghan T. What's wrong with the world's favourite painkiller? [Internet]. Newscientist.com. Accessed 1 September 2014.

  • Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Core paracetamol product information. December 2005.

  • MIMS Australia. Panadol.

  • Panadol Osteo. Consumer Medicine Information (Australia).

  • Royal Society of Chemistry. Paracetamol: a curriculum resource. 2002.

  • Tylenol.com. About Us. [Internet]. Accessed 2 September 2014.

  • Williams CM et al. Lancet. 2014 Jul 23. pii: S0140-6736(14)60805-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60805-9. [Epub ahead of print]."