Michael W. Smith, MD
You’ve probably taken acetaminophen at one time or another for fever or pain relief. You may know acetaminophen as the active ingredient in Tylenol and many other over-the-counter (OTC) products, including cold medications.
When used as directed, taking acetaminophen is generally safe and effective. But it can be harmful if it’s not taken correctly. Read on to learn about the benefits and risks of acetaminophen and how to use it safely.
Acetaminophen is the most commonly used medicine for pain relief in the United States. For most people, when used as directed, it safely reduces fever and relieves many kinds of mild to moderate pain -- from backaches, headaches, and sprains to arthritis and menstrual cramps. And when it’s taken correctly, side effects are rare.
Another benefit of acetaminophen is that it doesn’t cause stomach upset or heart problems -- both possible risks with the other major type of OTC pain relievers, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
“Acetaminophen may be a good alternative for pain relief for those who are at risk of heart disease or stomach problems with NSAIDs,” says Elliott Antman, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston.
“Acetaminophen is considered to be safe and effective in the recommended doses, according to the ‘Drug Facts’ label,” says Joel Schiffenbauer, MD, deputy director of nonprescription clinical evaluations at the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
The Drug Facts label is found on the package of every OTC medicine. It lists the active ingredients, how to take the medicine, what it is supposed to do, and any warnings about its use.
When taken incorrectly, however, acetaminophen can cause liver damage. And your risk of liver damage may be increased if you drink more than three alcoholic drinks every day, take more than the recommended dose (overdose), or if you take any additional drugs that also contain acetaminophen at the same time.
When taking acetaminophen, follow these tips:
“Consumers taking any OTC pain reliever who find the dose in the Drug Facts label is not adequate to control their symptoms should seek medical advice,” says Schiffenbauer.
Acetaminophen is used in many OTC medicines to treat fever and pain in children. Because children are also at risk for liver damage from taking too much acetaminophen, it’s important to read and follow labels carefully. Practice these tips to keep your child safe:
If you or your child takes too much acetaminophen, call your doctor or seek medical help right away. The symptoms of acetaminophen overdose include:
These symptoms may not appear until 12 to 24 hours after taking the medicine.
When taken as directed, acetaminophen is a safe way to control pain and fever. However, it’s important to read all medicine labels and follow directions carefully to make sure you don’t take too much.
SOURCES:FDA: “Acetaminophen and Liver Injury: Q & A for Consumers,” “A Guide to Safe Use of Pain Medicine.”Family Doctor: “Pain Relievers: Understanding Your OTC Options.”Joel Schiffenbauer, MD, deputy director, Division of Nonprescription Clinical Evaluation, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA.American Heart Association: “Use of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs: An Update for Clinicians: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.”Elliott Antman, MD, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, Boston.California State Board of Pharmacy: “What's the deal with double dosing?”National Kidney Foundation: "How Your Kidneys Work."
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