Most everyone in America lives with acetaminophen in their home. It’s typically in every person’s bathroom cabinet, first aid kit, or desk drawer at work. We turn to acetaminophen to treat headaches, muscle pain, bring down a fever, or treat pain from small injuries. According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, almost a quarter of Americans (23%) use acetaminophen-containing products each week. But as with all things in life, acetaminophen is not perfect. And, as with everything, too much of a good thing can be harmful.
Acetaminophen is a drug typically used to treat mild or moderate pain and fevers. However, it’s also used for the treatment of headaches, toothaches, and arthritis. Also known as paracetamol or APAP, acetaminophen is in both over-the-counter (OTC) brand names like Tylenol as well as prescription medications like Vicodin. Having acetaminophen in the home allows people to rest easy knowing that minor injuries can be treated with a pill.
When taken at the recommended doses, acetaminophen is reasonably safe to use. What makes acetaminophen safer than other pain relievers, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), is that it doesn’t cause the same risk of cardiovascular or digestive problems as other painkillers do. Another quality that makes acetaminophen preferable is that it is safe enough to use for pregnant women. Acetaminophen is one of the few pain relievers that pregnant women can use.
In a medical review published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, acetaminophen risks were thought to have been underestimated. Although it’s generally safe when used as recommended, acetaminophen does have its downsides to consider. The following are a few dangers to keep in mind when using acetaminophen.
8. Severe Skin Allergies
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put out a warning regarding acetaminophen use in 2013. The warning alerted consumers to severe, sometimes fatal, skin reactions, like toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) and Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS).
7. Blood Cancers
A 2011 study documented in the Journal of Clinical Oncology uncovered a link between regular acetaminophen use and the risk of specific blood cancers. The study consisted of 64,000 participants, ages 50 to 76. The discovered that long-term use of acetaminophen (used four or more times a week for four years) resulted in a twofold risk of blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
6. Liver Damage
The FDA reported acetaminophen as the leading cause of liver failure in the United States from 1998 to 2003. Although most people are already aware of the damage acetaminophen can do to the liver, they may not know that the liver damage can lead to death in rare cases. Regular use of acetaminophen above the recommended dose can result in long-lasting liver damage. For people who already have compromised liver function, it’s best to use acetaminophen with caution.
5. Acetaminophen Overdose
Acetaminophen’s multi-use properties also make it a popular addition to many other over-the-counter drugs. Present in cold medicines and pain medications, it’s possible to overdose on acetaminophen without even realizing it. If a person takes multiple acetaminophen-containing medications simultaneously, they may not be calculating their overall intake correctly, leading to overdose and thus damaging the liver.
4. Autism and ADHD
According to a recent study published in JAMA, pregnant women were twice as likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) if they had taken acetaminophen during their pregnancy. However, ASD and ADHD both have environmental and genetic factors that can play a part in their development. Although acetaminophen is still considered safe during pregnancy, the study warrants further research.Related: 11 Liver Damage Signs You Can’t Ignore
Acetaminophen use in pregnant women and young children may increase the risk of developing asthma, though some studies show conflicting findings. A decade or more ago, reviews showed that acetaminophen use could cause or worsen asthma in children. However, more recent studies found no difference between acetaminophen use versus ibuprofen in causing asthma in children. Moreover, it’s thought that respiratory symptoms are already present during the use of these drugs, thus mistakenly attributing any breathing problems to the drugs’ use.
2. Reduced Kidney Function
According to the National Kidney Foundation, painkillers such as acetaminophen can reduce blood flow to the kidneys, preventing the kidneys from doing their job and increasing the buildup of toxins within the body. Waste products can accumulate, affecting the kidney’s ability to filter blood.
1. Heart Attack or Stroke
Acetaminophen can increase a person’s risk for a heart attack or stroke. Because it restricts blood vessels to reduce pain and inflammation, acetaminophen can also cause high blood pressure, increasing the chances of a cardiovascular event. They can also reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medication.
Safe Use of Acetaminophen
Even with all these dangers to consider, the benefits outweigh the risk with the responsible use of acetaminophen. For example, allowing a fever to remain too high when a child is ill holds more danger than lowering the fever using acetaminophen.
If you’re looking to lower the risk of adverse effects of acetaminophen use, consult the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website. They recommend consulting with a health professional if you have a kidney or liver disorder, asthma, heart problems, or are pregnant before taking OTC pain medications.
Avoid taking more than one acetaminophen-containing product at one time. Be especially aware of OTC cough or cold products that contain more than one drug. Take acetaminophen as prescribed or as written on the OTC package label.Related: 8 Ways Ibuprofen Can Be Bad for Your Body