Safe Use of Acetaminophen

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John J. Whyte, MD, MPH
Director, Professional Affairs & Stakeholder Engagement
U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Millions of people use pain relievers every day and when used correctly, these medicines are safe and effective. As we age, we may find ourselves using these medications more often than in the past. Making sure we use them according to the label directions is important because they can really take a toll on our health when not used correctly.

The key is making sure you know the active ingredients of, and directions for, all your medicines before you use them.

Many over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that are sold for different uses actually have the same active ingredient. Also, active ingredients in OTC medicines can be the same as ingredients in prescription medicines. For example, a cold-and-cough remedy may have the same active ingredient as a headache remedy or a prescription pain reliever.

There are two basic types of OTC pain relievers. Some contain acetaminophen and others contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medicines are used to temporarily reduce fever, as well as temporarily relieve the minor aches and pains associated with:

  • minor pain of arthritis
  • headaches
  • muscle pain
  • backache
  • menstrual pain
  • toothaches
  • the common cold

We’ll focus on acetaminophen here. Acetaminophen is a common pain reliever and fever reducer, but taking too much can lead to liver damage. The risk for liver damage may be increased if you drink three or more alcoholic drinks while using medicines containing acetaminophen. Continue reading