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Over-the-Counter Migraine Medicine: What Works Best?

If you’re someone who regularly experiences migraines, then you know how painful they are. Migraines can last for hours to days if left untreated, and the pain can be severe enough to interfere with your work or daily activities.1 Fortunately, some migraines can be treated with the right migraine medicines and effective self-help remedies.1 But what should you be looking for when shopping for migraine medicines?

When your usual pain-relieving medicine can’t suppress your heaviest migraines, you’ll need to look for solutions that really work.

How do you know if you have a migraine?

Migraines are often mistaken for bad headaches. The American Migraine Foundation estimates that at least 39 million Americans deal with migraines, although this number may be much higher since many people do not get diagnosed.2 Migraines are complex disease conditions with accompanying head pain that can appear in the form of multiple symptoms.

The four stages of migraines

There are four stages of migraines, and not everyone goes through every stage.1 These stages are called prodrome, aura, attack and post-drome.1 The prodrome and aura stages precede a migraine and are often unnoticeable.2 You may experience subtle changes during prodrome, including mood changes, food cravings and increased yawning.1,2 The aura stage usually affects your vision and can cause speech difficulties.1

An attack is the painful stage of a migraine. Some common symptoms of migraine attacks include:2

  • Moderate or severe head pain
  • A throbbing or pulsating sensation in your head
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain on one or both sides of your head
  • Head pain that worsens with physical activity or movement

After a migraine attack, most people experience post-drome.1 This stage of a migraine often leaves people feeling confused, dizzy or even elated.1,2

Common ingredients used in migraine medications

There is no guaranteed way to cure a migraine, so the best way to manage the pain is to take effective medications.3 Pain-relieving medications work best when they are taken at the first sign of a migraine.3 When looking for an over-the-counter medication for migraines, look for products with these pain relievers as their active ingredients:


Acetaminophen is used to treat a variety of conditions that cause mild to moderate pain.4 Besides migraines, acetaminophen is also commonly used to relieve pain from muscle aches, cough and cold symptoms, toothaches, other types of headaches and menstrual pain.4 It can even be used to reduce fevers by helping to cool the body.4 Acetaminophen is classified as an analgesic, or a pain reliever, and works by changing the way the body senses pain.4

Acetaminophen can be taken on its own, but some over-the-counter brands combine it with other medications.4 Generally, acetaminophen is taken by mouth in the form of a tablet, capsule or liquid.4 Talk to a doctor if you have any concerns with taking products that contain acetaminophen, or if your pain lasts for longer than 10 days.4

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Non-prescription aspirin

Like acetaminophen, non-prescription aspirin is also used to treat mild to moderate pain for multiple conditions.5 Aside from pain relief, it is used to reduce fevers and to help prevent heart attacks in people who have previously experienced one.5 Aspirin is classified as a salicylate and works by stopping the production of natural substances that cause fever and pain.5

Aspirin is usually taken by mouth in the form of a tablet.5 Adults can take one tablet every four to six hours as needed to treat pain.5 Consult with a doctor before giving aspirin to a child or teenager.5


Drinking a nice cup of coffee is good for waking you up in the morning, and it can also help you through a migraine.6 One study found that caffeine was just as effective as acetaminophen in relieving tension-type headaches.6 However, a daily intake of caffeine won’t necessarily give you immunity against migraine pains. The brain may develop a tolerance for caffeine after frequent or daily exposure and make it less effective over time.6 Repeated use can also lead to dependency, and withdrawal symptoms such as headache and fatigue can follow if caffeine expectations are not met.6

Caffeine can treat acute migraines, as long as it isn’t used more than twice a week.6 Some migraine medicines even contain caffeine as a key active ingredient.6 If you experience frequent headaches, avoid using caffeine as a treatment method until your headache frequency is improved.6

Medication with multiple active ingredients

Over-the-counter migraine medications will sometimes contain more than one active ingredient to help combat the pain. For instance, acetaminophen can be used in combination with aspirin and caffeine to relieve migraine pain.4 Excedrin Migraine is a doctor-recommended over-the-counter migraine treatment that uses these three ingredients to activate multiple pain inhibitory pathways. One dose of this powerful medication has been proven to provide effective relief for patients with moderate to severe migraines. When taking Excedrin Migraine to treat migraine pain, be sure to stick to the recommended daily amount of two capsules a day and to avoid mixing with other drugs containing acetaminophen.7

For dosing information and guidelines, read through the Excedrin Ingredients and Dosage chart. Learn more about treating migraines and find other helpful tips on the Excedrin website.

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