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Taking Acetaminophen Safely

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Acetaminophenóthe active ingredient in Tylenol and other over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicationsóhas long been considered a first-line medication for most patients with low back pain. Its benefits include both its short-term effectiveness in dealing with pain and its lower risk profile when compared with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.

In light of recent reports, however, you may be wondering if this wonder drug is as harmless as you may have once thought. The fact is, all medications, whether OTC or prescription, carry some risk. Although acetaminophen is safe when used as directed, following those directions may be more complicated than it seems and so requires prudence.

Cause for caution

Since the 1950s, acetaminophen has enjoyed popularity among doctors and patients alike for its pain-relieving and fever-reducing properties with few side effects. However, cases of severe liver damage with acetaminophen, commonly used alone or in combination with other drugs, have occurred in people who:

  • Took more than the prescribed dose in a 24-hour period
  • Took more than one acetaminophen-containing product at the same time
  • Drank alcohol while taking acetaminophen products

Because such liver damage can be serious enough to lead to liver failure, liver transplant and even death, in 1988, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set the daily maximum dose of acetaminophen for adults at 4,000 milligrams (mg) in an effort to protect consumers.

Keeping consumption under this limit may seem like a simple solution, but itís easier to reach 4,000 mg than you might think. For example, consider that two extended-release caplets of Tylenol 8 HR aloneóthe recommended doseó contain 1,300 mg. And acetaminophen isnít only found in OTC pain relievers; itís also used in prescription painkillers and a variety of OTC products like sleep aids, cough syrups and allergy medications.

Because itís an active ingredient in so many different drugs, itís easy to unintentionally exceed the recommended amount without realizing it, putting yourself at risk for adverse side effects. In fact, acetaminophen overdose remains one of the most common causes of medication-related poisonings and death.

Also, because of their slower metabolism and organ function, older adults are generally more sensitive to drugs than younger adults. As you age, your digestive system, liver and kidney functions slowóall processes that contribute to how a drug is absorbed into the bloodstream, how it affects the organs and how quickly itís elimi- nated from the body.

What you can do

Take these steps to help ensure safe acetaminophen use:

  • Use one pharmacy for all your prescriptions. Your pharmacy maintains records of prescription drugs you currently take or have taken in the past, so your pharmacist can check for drug interactions or if youíve been prescribed more than one drug that contains acetaminophen.
  • Use your medication as directed. Read the label on your medication for the appropriate dose, and donít take more than the recommended or prescribed amount. Never take two drugs that both contain acetaminophen or more than one dose at the same time. If you miss a dose, take the missed dose when you remember. If itís close to the time for your next dose, skip the missed dose and take the next dose at your normal time.
  • Consult your doctor. If you have a history of liver disease or elevated liver function tests, talk with your doctor before using acetaminophen or when using it for an extended period of time.
  • Know the symptoms of acetaminophen poisoning. If you experience nausea, vomiting, sweating, pallor or fatigue while taking the drug, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. If poisoning isnít treated, the liver or kidneys may stop working correctly; severe poisoning can be fatal. If you think you may have accidentally taken too much, call your healthcare provider, even if you feel fine. Symptoms of liver damage may not be noticeable right away, and some people may not experience symptoms at all.
  • Limit alcohol when taking the drug. Because of the increased risk of liver damage when acetaminophen and alcohol are combined, the FDA advises not to take acetaminophen drugs if you drink three or more alcoholic drinks a day.
  • Be aware of other possible side effects. If youíre taking acetaminophen and develop a rash or other skin reaction, stop taking the product immediately and seek medical attention. Although rare, a skin reaction can lead to widespread damage to the skinís surface and is potentially fatal. A serious skin reaction can occur at any time, even if youíve taken acetaminophen in the past without a reaction.
  • Donít take an OTC medicine for longer than directed. Most OTC acetaminophen products are meant to be taken only on a short-term basisóno longer than 10 daysóunless otherwise directed by your doctor. Stop taking acetaminophen and call your doctor if your symptoms worsen; you develop new symptoms, including redness or swelling; your pain lasts for more than 10 days; or your fever worsens or lasts more than three days.
  • Know when another OTC choice may be more appropriate. If you have a sprain or arthritis pain, for example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen may be a better choice than acetaminophen, which wonít help with swelling and inflammation. Talk with your doctor about the pain reliever thatís best for you.

Despite the warnings about acetaminophen, it remains one of the safest pain medications when taken in appropriate amounts.

Posted in Back Pain on April 22, 2016

Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Health After 50 Disclaimer

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Health After 50 Alerts registered users may post comments and share experiences here at their own discretion. We regret that questions on individual health concerns to the editors cannot be answered in this space.

The views expressed here do not constitute medical advice, and do not represent the position of Scientific American Health After 50 or Remedy Health Media, LLC, which has no responsibility for any comments posted on this site.

In regards to taking tylenol to relieve back pain. I personally have never found tylenol to be very effective. Especially for the relief of back pain.

Relative to this subject, I found a recently published study by a group of doctors involving hospitalized patients with back issues, and the administering of tylenol to treat their pain to gauge it's effectiveness. This was measured by monitoring the patients pain, and the doctors interpretation of the patients complaints etc..

The results found that tylenol was not effective in treating back pain. I personally found this of interest in correlation with my own experience of taking tylenol for relief of back pain in the lumbar and thoracic areas.

Just a personal observation...

Posted by: Gem56 | April 22, 2016 8:08 AM

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