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Topical Pain Relievers

What Over-the-Counter Analgesics Are

Over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics are a class of medicines that relieve pain, and depending on the dosage form, some analgesics also may reduce fever. There are two different categories of analgesics: internal and external. Internal analgesics are pain relievers and fever reducers. These medicines are intended for internal use and are either taken by mouth in the form of pills and liquids, or inserted into the rectum in suppository form. External analgesics are topical pain relievers and are not intended to reduce fever. These medicines are for external use only and are applied directly to the outer body surface in lotions, sprays, and other forms. Before selecting an OTC analgesic medicine, you should first consider the type of symptoms you are experiencing and then determine the best course of treatment.

What Topical Pain Relievers Are For

Topical pain relievers, or external analgesics, are a group of different medicines that are used "externally," which means on the skin. Some topical pain relievers are intended to relieve minor body aches and pains such as backache, muscle ache, or arthritis. Some products soothe sunburn or minor burns, while others are used for itching and skin irritations due to eczemas, contact allergies, or insect bites.

How Topical Pain Relievers Work

Topical pain relievers, like all over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, contain certain active ingredients that make the products work in the human body. The product’s active ingredients, including how much of a substance is in each dose, are listed first on the Drug Facts label.

Depending on the active ingredients, topical pain relievers are intended to treat a number of different conditions including inflammation, minor aches and pains of joints and muscles, sunburn or other minor burns, and itching and irritation. Many products are available to consumers over the counter in spray, lotion, cream, gel, ointment, patch, or medicated wipe form.

Below is a list of the active ingredients in topical pain relievers and how they work:

*Not all products sold under a brand contain the same ingredients. Please read the OTC Drug Facts label carefully for active ingredient information for specific products.

Tips for Safe use of Topical Pain Relievers

  • Always read the OTC Drug Facts label carefully. The label tells you everything you need to know about the medicine including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should use, and when you should not use the product.
  • Topical pain relievers should only be applied to the outer surface of your body. In case you accidentally swallow a product, contact your doctor or the national poison control helpline (888.222.1222) immediately.
  • When applying a spray, lotion, cream, gel, or ointment, avoid getting the product into your eyes.
  • Stop using the medicine if skin irritation develops.
  • Do not bandage, wrap, or tightly cover any area on which you have applied a topical pain reliever. Covering tightly can trap too much of the active ingredient against your skin.
  • If your condition worsens, lasts for more than seven days, or clears up and then returns a few days later, contact a doctor or another healthcare professional.
  • Do not use more of the medicine than is recommended on the Drug Facts label unless you are under the advice of a physician.
  • Do not use a topical pain reliever containing capsaicin if you are allergic to chili peppers.
  • Do not apply to wounds or damaged skin.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to a healthcare professional before use.

Tips for Parents

All of the tips for safe use of OTC topical pain relievers in this section also apply to children. But like most OTC medicines, there are some additional considerations when it comes to treating kids.

  • OTC topical pain relievers may contain more than one active ingredient and the ingredients may come in different concentrations. Some of these concentrations should not be used on children.
  • Read the Drug Facts label carefully to make sure the topical pain reliever should be used on the child you wish to treat.

Additional tips by ages—Be sure to read the entire list for medicines that may or may not be labeled for your child:

  • Talk to a healthcare professional before using an OTC topical pain reliever containing benzocaine, camphor, diphenhydramine, hydrocortisone, lidocaine, menthol, or pramoxine in a child age two and under.
  • Talk to a healthcare professional before using an OTC topical pain reliever containing methyl salicylate or trolamine salicylate in a child age 12 and under.
  • Do not use an OTC topical pain reliever containing methyl salicylate on a child under the age of 12 if the child has arthritis-like conditions.
  • If a child under age 12 is experiencing external anal itching, talk to a healthcare professional before using a topical pain medicine containing hydrocortisone on the affected area.
  • Talk to a healthcare professional before using an OTC topical pain reliever containing capsaicin for a child age 18 and under.

Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.

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