Let’s face it. What do most of us do when we’re dealing with sudden headaches, bad hangovers, menstrual cramps, or even the insistent throbbing pain of a stubbed toe? We reach for that bottle of Advil®, Tylenol®, or whatever generic brand of pain reliever we have on hand. These over-the-counter medications—when used as directed by the label—are safe and effective. However, popping these pills like M&Ms whenever you have the smallest twinge of discomfort or otherwise abusing them could take a serious toll on your health.
Most over-the-counter pain relievers fall into two categories: those that contain acetaminophen and those that are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Acetaminophen is a common active ingredient in everyday pain relievers such as Excedrin® and Tylenol®, as well as in more severe, prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Lortab. NSAIDs include over-the-counter drugs such as Aspirin, Advil®, Motrin®, and Aleve®.
Taking too much of acetaminophen—either in the form of pain relievers or fever reducers—can result in liver damage. Consuming three or more alcoholic drinks while using medications containing acetaminophen can also increase your risk of developing stomach ulcers or stomach bleeding. When it is taking effect, acetaminophen produces a toxic metabolite that the body eliminates by converting it to a less toxic substance. If more acetaminophen is consumed than is easily eliminated from the body, the toxic metabolite can accumulate and cause serious damage to the liver. Consistent overuse of NSAIDs can also cause liver damage, as well as damage to the kidneys, with risk of kidney damage increasing significantly in people over 60 and people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and pre-existing kidney disease.
Although the health risks of taking too many painkillers are dangerous and potentially life-threatening, the bottom line to avoiding overuse of these medications is to know how much of the active ingredient you are taking. Among the medical community, it is an established fact that people should never take more than 4,000 milligrams of acetaminophen a day, or the equivalent of eight extra-strength Tylenol tablets within a 24-hour period. With many drugs on the market now containing acetaminophen, such as cough and cold products as well as sleep aids, people oftentimes are not aware of how much they are ingesting. Combining medications also poses a problem. The dosage of acetaminophen in over-the-counter pain relievers has also been steadily increasing over the years. While 325 mg of acetaminophen per pill used to be the standard in the past, now 500 mg in both name-brand and generic tablets is much more common.
The FDA is proposing new labeling on drugs that contain acetaminophen that informs consumers of the harmful risks of overuse, including liver damage and stomach bleeding. New labeling regulations will also require labels that clearly inform customers about the ingredients contained in medications. For now, read labels of over-the-counter medications carefully, be wary of medications other than pain relievers that could contain acetaminophen, never exceed the recommended dosage, and check with your health care provider to ensure that you are using these medications properly. As an extra precautionary measure, next time you are thinking of taking some Advil for that slight ache in your neck, give your liver a break and skip on the pain meds—your body will thank you.
Article by Katherine Wei
Feature Image Source: Medical Daily