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 over-the-counter 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 different types of pain, including:

  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Period Pain
  • Aches and pains associated with colds & flu

Paracetamol also reduces fever.

History of paracetamol

Paracetamol was invented in 1893 and was first available to the general public in 1950 in the United States and in 1956 in Australia.

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 Non-steroidal 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, Rafen  Panadol, Herron Paracetamol, Panamax, Chemists’ Own, Dymadon

Paracetamol: frequently asked questions

Can you take paracetamol when pregnant?

Paracetamol can be taken for pain relief during pregnancy, however pregnant women should always seek medical advice before taking paracetamol or other medicines.

How long does paracetamol take to work?

Paracetamol is available in many different strengths and formats, so the time it takes to work can vary. It’s best to speak to your doctor or pharmacist for more information.

Can you take paracetamol on an empty stomach?

When taking paracetamol, it is important to read the label to ensure you understand how that particular product should be taken.

How much paracetamol can I take in a day?

Read the product label to learn more about the recommended dose of paracetamol, including the maximum you can take in one day. It is very important not to take more than the recommended daily dose. Remember to always read the label first and take the medicine as directed, plus keep track of the timing of doses. Speak with your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure.

Paracetamol dosing can vary according to a range of factors including age, weight, and the strength of the product. It’s important to read the product label for the correct dosing instructions. Be aware that paracetamol should only be taken for a few days at a time, unless advised by your doctor.

Remember that paracetamol can be found in many pain-relieving products, including cough and cold medicines for adults and children. It’s therefore important to check the label or ask your pharmacist to make sure you do not take more than the daily recommended dose of paracetamol. If your pain persists or you are unsure about anything related to your symptoms or medication, always speak to your doctor or pharmacist.