The Pitt Prescription: How to manage pain and stay healthy

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and Senior Staff Writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

As winter rolls around, the weather is getting cooler and there is a general heaviness in the air. During a time in the semester with so much going on, it can be easy to ignore your body’s signals that you may be getting sick or that you need some time to refresh from the daily struggles life throws at you.

Taking care of yourself, your mind and your body is incredibly important and college students sometimes forget this. A lot of pent-up stress and pressure can lead to significant impairment of one’s immune system. According to Simply Psychology, when under stress, the human body often has lower levels of lymphocytes, the cells that fight infection. This can cause people to catch colds or the flu much easier than when they are less stressed.

Luckily, there are some methods that students can use to try to fight off getting sick or living in pain. First and foremost, sleep is one of the most important factors of health, and this will be discussed much more in-depth in the next blog. Sleep allows the body to rest and rejuvenate, which helps with many bodily functions, including upholding the functions of the immune system.

Generally, it is recommended to get at least seven hours of sleep per night if you are between the ages of 18- and 60-years-old. Lack of sleep can lower your immune system responses, so that in combination with stress can lead to illness.

Good nutrition is also essential for health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a healthy diet, consisting of well-balanced food choices, can help adults reduce their risk of disease, especially chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Eating well can often be difficult when you’re busy and feel like eating out or getting fast food is your best option. I’ve personally found that meal prepping every Sunday or Monday allows me to have healthy food on hand when I need a quick bite to eat.

Another important factor in staying healthy is trying to manage your stress levels. This is so much easier said than done (trust me, I realize this as a student pharmacist). While managing stress can be difficult, there are some things you can attempt to do to de-stress. I personally like to make to-do lists/schedules that lay out everything I need to do each week and when I plan on doing them. I even include meal times and study breaks and try to follow them as best as possible. There are also numerous places around Pittsburgh and on campus you can go to de-stress as outlined here.

If you unfortunately do get sick, one of the most common side effects of any illness is aches, pain or soreness. These can be easily treated with the use of over-the-counter pain medications. Even if you aren’t sick but deal with chronic headaches, menstrual cramps, migraines or gym soreness, these OTC medications can help you out when you’re not feeling your best.

There are hundreds of active OTC medications available to consumers, so it is important to know what to look for and what to avoid. It can sometimes be challenging and confusing to find a medication that’s right for you, especially without a medical background. Remember, you can always ask a pharmacist if you have questions. Pharmacists are drug experts and are the most accessible health care professionals. Don’t hesitate to stop in at one of the pharmacies on campus and ask for a recommendation.

The most common OTC pain relievers are acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and aspirin. Many OTC medications have either one of those active ingredients or a combination. Certain cold, flu and headache medications also include these pain relievers as active ingredients, which is why it is important to read the label of all medications you are taking to make sure you never double up on a medication (which can lead to toxic drug levels in the body). An example of this is Excedrin, which includes both acetaminophen and aspirin as well as caffeine to treat migraines. Taking Excedrin alongside either acetaminophen or aspirin could lead to toxic effects.

Deciding which medication is best for you and your symptoms can be difficult, so with the help of MedLine Plus and my professors, I’ve laid it out for you:

Acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol)

  • Can be used for pain relief related to headaches, the common cold, muscular aches, backache, minor pain of arthritis, toothaches and premenstrual and menstrual cramping
  • Reduces fevers but does NOT reduce inflammation
  • Safe to use for most ages — follow the directions on the label to be sure the dosage is correct because it comes in many strengths and dosage forms
  • It is not safe to consume if you have had more than three alcoholic drinks in a day (can cause liver toxicity in conjunction with alcohol)
  • You should never take more than 4,000 mg, or 4 grams, in 24 hours. Do not take in conjunction with another medication containing acetaminophen (per package insert)
  • Always read the label of any nonprescription medication you take

Ibuprofen (brand name: Motrin, Advil), naproxen sodium (brand name: Aleve), acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin)

  • All of these are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which means they help to reduce inflammation
  • Can be used for pain relief related to headaches, toothaches, backaches, menstrual cramps, the common cold, muscular aches and minor pain due to arthritis
    • Fun fact: ibuprofen is one of the most common medications dentists recommend for oral pain because of its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects — it’s believed to be one of the most effective medications for treating oral pain
  • It is not safe to consume if you have had more than three drinks in a day (can cause stomach bleeding in conjunction with alcohol)
  • Always read the package insert to make sure you don’t exceed the daily recommended dose and do not take multiple NSAIDs together (risk of stomach bleeding)

In the end, it is important you read the label and package insert when taking a new medication. Do not exceed the recommended dose unless a doctor has told you otherwise. Do not use OTC pain medications for more than 10 consecutive days unless under doctor’s orders. If you have any questions, you can always ask your local pharmacist — they are always happy to help.