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Acetaminophen

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 7 minutes read
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Acetaminophen is a common over-the-counter painkiller (also known as an analgesic). It is used in adults, children, and infants to treat pain and fever in a wide range of conditions, including headache, toothache, earache, muscle pain, sprains and strains, period pain, arthritis, sore throat, post-immunization fever, colds, and flu. Some examples of branded versions of acetaminophen include FeverAll and Tylenol.

Acetaminophen can be dangerous if you take too much, so make sure you only take one acetaminophen-containing product at a time. It can appear in all sorts of products, such as cold and flu remedies - so worth a careful look!

Doctor’s advice

How does acetaminophen work?

The exact mechanism of action of acetaminophen is not fully understood. It is believed to work by blocking pain signals by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins in the brain, which are chemicals involved in pain perception and the regulation of body temperature. By reducing the levels of prostaglandins, acetaminophen helps to alleviate pain and fever.

Uses and Indications:

Acetaminophen is commonly used to relieve mild to moderate pain and reduce fever associated with various conditions, including:

Benefits of acetaminophen

  • Acetaminophen is available over-the-counter in most countries, making it easily accessible for self-management of pain and fever.
  • When used as directed, acetaminophen is considered safe for most people, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly.
  • Unlike nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen, acetaminophen has a lower risk of causing stomach irritation and gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • Acetaminophen does not have significant blood-thinning effects, making it a safer option for individuals who are at risk of bleeding or taking anticoagulant medications.

What formulations are available?

Acetaminophen is available in tablets, capsules, caplets, effervescent tablets (dissolve them in water before swallowing), chewable, oral liquid, and suppository forms.

How much acetaminophen can I take?

Acetaminophen can be taken up to 4 times a day. The dosage depends on your age and the formulation; this is listed below.

Adults and anyone aged 12+ years: 325 mg-1000 mg every 4-6 hours as needed for immediate-release products or 650 mg-1300 mg every 8 hours as needed for extended-release products (max 3000 mg/day) - or 4,000 mg/day under the supervision of a health care provider

Children under 12 years: 10-15 mg/kg every 4-6 hours as needed (max 2,400 mg/day). Babies aged 2 years and younger should only receive acetaminophen after consultation with a primary care provider.

Who should not take the medication?

Acetaminophen is not suitable for everyone. You should not take acetaminophen if you have previously had an allergic reaction to it or another ingredient listed in the medication.

You should speak to your local doctor before taking acetaminophen if you have liver or kidney problems or drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week on a regular basis, as it may not be suitable for you.

Diabetics and people with phenylketonuria need to be careful when taking the liquid, effervescent tablet, and chewable tablet forms of acetaminophen as they may contain sugar or aspartame; it may be best for them to avoid these formulations.

Acetaminophen can interact with other medicines, such as warfarin, lomitapide, cholestyramine, and leflunamide. If you take any prescription, over-the-counter or herbal medicines we recommend you ask your doctor or pharmacist to check if they are safe to take alongside acetaminophen.

Considerations when taking acetaminophen

Overdose

Acetaminophen overdose is a serious medical emergency that can result in liver damage, organ failure, and even death if not treated promptly. Symptoms of acetaminophen overdose may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, confusion, and jaundice. If you suspect an overdose or have taken more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen, seek immediate medical attention.

Considerations

Acetaminophen is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding when used as directed. However, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before taking any medication during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Acetaminophen is commonly used to treat fever and pain in children and infants. However, it is crucial to use pediatric formulations and follow dosing instructions carefully to avoid overdose or adverse effects.

Older adults may be more susceptible to the side effects of acetaminophen, especially liver toxicity. It is essential to use acetaminophen cautiously in this population and consult with a healthcare professional if any concerns arise.

Are there any side effects?

Side effects are generally uncommon for acetaminophen.

As with all medications, there is the potential for serious side effects, such as an allergic reaction. You should stop taking acetaminophen and seek urgent medical attention if you develop a skin rash, shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in your chest or throat or swelling of your tongue, mouth, lips, face or throat.

This is not a complete list of side effects; you can find a complete list in the patient information leaflet provided with acetaminophen. If you are concerned about any side effects, you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

Frequently asked questions about acetaminophen

Can I take acetaminophen with other medications?

Acetaminophen can interact with certain medications and supplements, potentially increasing the risk of side effects or reducing the effectiveness of other drugs. It is essential to consult with your pharmacist before taking acetaminophen if you are taking other medications, especially blood-thinning medications, drugs that affect liver function, or herbal supplements.

Can I take acetaminophen if I am pregnant or breastfeeding?

Acetaminophen is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding when used as directed. However, it is essential to consult with your doctor before taking any medication during pregnancy or while breastfeeding to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.

What should I do if I overdose on acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen overdose is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect an overdose or have taken more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen, seek immediate medical attention or contact your emergency department. Prompt treatment is essential to prevent liver damage or other complications.

Can I give acetaminophen to my child?

Acetaminophen is commonly used to treat fever and pain in children and infants. However, it is crucial to use pediatric formulations and follow dosing instructions carefully to avoid overdose or adverse effects. It is also essential to consult with a healthcare professional before giving acetaminophen to a child, especially if they have any underlying health conditions or are taking other medications.

Is acetaminophen addictive?

Acetaminophen is not considered addictive, as it does not have the same potential for dependence or abuse as some other pain medications. However, it is essential to use acetaminophen responsibly and according to the recommended dosage instructions to avoid potential risks or adverse effects. If you have concerns about addiction or dependence on pain medication, it is essential to discuss them with a healthcare professional.

Are there any long-term effects of regular acetaminophen use?

Long-term use of acetaminophen at recommended doses is generally considered safe for most people. However, some studies have suggested a potential link between long-term acetaminophen use and an increased risk of certain health conditions, such as liver damage or kidney problems. It is essential to use acetaminophen responsibly and according to the recommended dosage instructions to minimize the risk of adverse effects.

Can acetaminophen be used to prevent hangovers?

While acetaminophen may help alleviate headaches and other symptoms associated with hangovers, it does not prevent or cure hangovers. Drinking alcohol excessively can have numerous adverse effects on health, and relying on acetaminophen to manage hangover symptoms is not a recommended or effective long-term solution. It is essential to drink alcohol responsibly and in moderation to avoid hangover symptoms and minimize the risk of harm to health.

Does acetaminophen interact with herbal supplements or alternative remedies?

Acetaminophen can interact with certain herbal supplements or alternative remedies, potentially increasing the risk of side effects or reducing the effectiveness of other drugs. It is essential to consult with your doctor before taking acetaminophen with herbal supplements or alternative remedies to ensure safety and efficacy.

Can acetaminophen be used in combination with other pain medications?

Acetaminophen is often used in combination with other pain medications, such as opioids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to enhance pain relief. However, it is essential to use combination medications containing acetaminophen responsibly and according to the recommended dosage instructions to avoid potential overdose or adverse effects. It is also crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before combining acetaminophen with other pain medications to ensure safety and efficacy.

Is there a difference between paracetamol and acetaminophen?

Paracetamol and acetaminophen are two names for the same medication. In most countries outside the United States, the medication is known as paracetamol, while in the United States and some other countries, it is known as acetaminophen. Both names refer to the same drug, which is commonly used to relieve pain and reduce fever.

Can acetaminophen be used in veterinary medicine?

Acetaminophen is not commonly used in veterinary medicine due to its potential toxicity in animals, especially cats. Even small doses of acetaminophen can be fatal to cats and can cause liver damage in dogs and other animals. It is essential to avoid giving acetaminophen to pets or other animals without the guidance of a veterinarian. If you suspect that your pet has ingested acetaminophen, seek immediate veterinary care.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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