Health

The Difference Between Which Painkiller You Take Post-COVID Vaccine

And why whatever you have in your medicine cabinet will work.

A person holds two painkillers in one open hand, with a glass of water in the other hand. You can safely take ibuprofen or acetaminophen after your COVID vaccine.
d3sign/Moment/Getty Images

Before you got your COVID vaccine, all you were focused on was securing an actual appointment. But now that the day after is here and your arm is sore, you're contemplating a different problem — do you take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for post-COVID vaccine soreness?

Can You Take Painkillers After Getting The COVID Vaccine?

If you know the basics of how vaccines work, you might be hesitant to take an anti-inflammatory painkiller after getting your shot. Vaccines activate your immune system, and part of your natural immune response is to create inflammation in your body — so will anti-inflammatories counteract the effectiveness of the vaccine?

Doctors say no, painkillers will not mess with the vaccine — AKA, you can take them if you need them. "Most experts agree at this point it’s fine to take a pain or fever-reducing medication after the vaccine if you develop side effects," says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., the regional medical director of One Medical. This is true even if the painkiller you're taking is an anti-inflammatory, as ibuprofen is, while acetaminophen is not.

"In clinical trials, they allowed ibuprofen and Tylenol (acetaminophen) use and it did not interfere with immune responses," explains Dr. Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health. The vaccines were effective all around, so if you're generally cleared by your doctor to take painkillers, doctors say you can rest assured that they won't impact the vaccine.

What's The Difference Between Acetaminophen & Ibuprofen?

What's the difference between acetaminophen and ibuprofen, anyway? Firstly, acetaminophen is Tylenol, and ibuprofen is Advil and Motrin. (Adulting 101 is having to look it up every single time.) Secondly, the two types of painkillers work differently.

"Ibuprofen is an NSAID, or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug," Dr. Parikh explains. "It works by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which then stops chemicals called prostaglandins, and thus prevents pain, fever, and inflammation." In other words, it presses pause on the chemicals that make you go ow.

Funnily enough, experts are not exactly sure how Tylenol works, though they know it does. "Acetaminophen's exact mechanism of action is not known, but it is not an anti-inflammatory," Dr. Parikh says. So when you're trying to figure out which to take, at least you'll know what Tylenol is not.

Is Acetaminophen Or Ibuprofen Better Post-Vaccine?

When post-vaccine arm soreness hits, you may find yourself staring into the abyss of your medicine cabinet, wondering if it's better to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. "Acetaminophen is not an anti-inflammatory, so it’s the one I would reach for first," Dr. Bhuyan says. "But if you only have ibuprofen, that is fine to take, too."

Different people respond differently to certain medications, too — so think about what tends to work well for your body and symptoms. "In some patients, acetaminophen seems to reduce pain from things like body aches better, while other patients feel like ibuprofen is more effective," Dr. Bhuyan explains. So really, it just depends on you and what you've got in your medicine cabinet.

TL;DR? "If you need it, take it," Dr. Parikh says.

Experts:

Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., regional medical director of One Medical

Dr. Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health