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OTCs vs. Opioids

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are more effective than opioids for dental pain

Most people will have their wisdom teeth extracted at some point in their lives. Managing pain is typically the primary concern patients have post-extraction. If you or someone in your family is having their wisdom teeth removed, your dentist may prescribe an opioid to help with short-term pain. But you may be surprised to hear that over-the-counter (OTC) medicines have been shown to be more effective at reducing dental pain than opioids.1 So those medicines should be your first choice if you have a toothache, or after you’ve had a dental procedure.

Need help choosing the right OTC medicine?

When you’re in pain, all you want is relief, and with dozens of OTC pain relievers on store shelves —or even in your home medicine cabinet — the choices be overwhelming. is a great resource for more information on OTCs, including comparisons of the most common options. These medicines may treat similar symptoms, but they work differently in your body. Be sure to compare pain relievers by looking at their active ingredients, uses, warnings, and dosage directions to understand their differences. OTC pain medicines can quickly help you feel better, but it is important to use them safely. Follow these tips to achieve safe, effective results:

  • Take the dose directed on the label. Even if you’re in a lot of pain, it is not safe to take more medicine than the label says.
  • Wait the right amount of time between doses.
  • Don’t take more than the daily limit.
  • Take ONLY one medicine with the same kind of active ingredient at a time.
  • If your pain lasts for more than 10 days, stop taking the medicine and see your doctor. It’s possible that the problem may need more attention, or a different treatment approach may be needed.

Talk to your doctor

If you need to have an impacted wisdom tooth extracted, it’s important to talk to your dentist about opioid alternatives. In fact, studies show that a combination of ibuprofen (Advil®, MOTRIN®) and acetaminophen (TYLENOL®) is just as effective, with fewer side effects, than opioids following dental surgery.1 You should also ask your doctor about EXPAREL, the opioid-free option for long-lasting pain relief after surgery. EXPAREL starts controlling pain during surgery and lasts for 72 hours, when you need pain relief the most. Unlike opioids, which affect your whole body, EXPAREL works by numbing only the area around the impacted wisdom tooth. Aetna covers EXPAREL with impacted wisdom tooth extractions.

In the event your doctor or dentist offers to prescribe opioids, let them know you’re open to non-opioid treatments. Aetna’s Find a Doctor tool allows members and nonmembers to search for surgeons that offer non-opioid pain relief options.

1American Dental Association. Oral Analgesics for Acute Dental Pain. ADA. May 22, 2019. Available at: Accessed July 8, 2019.