How To Use Acetaminophen Safely

Cold, cough, and flu season is a good time to revisit the risks of acetaminophen, a medication found in many cold, cough, and flu remedies. Although billions of doses of acetaminophen are consumed safely every year, some people taking the drug end up in the emergency room or need hospitalization, and some die from acetaminophen overdose or interaction. In the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, Dr. Melisa Lai Becker, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, suggests some ways to avoid getting into trouble when taking acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is the chemical name for the widely used pain and fever reliever in Tylenol and other over-the-counter (OTC) medications. High doses of acetaminophen can inflame and damage the liver. Because acetaminophen is in more than 600 different medications, it can be easy to ingest more than is healthy.

“People don’t realize that these doses all add up, and before you know it you’ve exceeded the recommended dose of acetaminophen,” says Dr. Lai Becker, director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. For the average healthy adult, the generally recommended maximum daily dose is no more than 4,000 mg from all sources. But in some people, doses close to the 4,000 mg daily limit could still harm the liver. It’s safest to take only what you need, and not to exceed 3,000 mg a day whenever possible. A small-bodied person should stay on the low end of the recommended dose range (3,000 mg). OTC acetaminophen pills may contain 325, 500, or 650 mg of the drug. Be extra cautious when taking the 500 or 650 mg pills. Drinking alcohol causes the liver to convert more of the acetaminophen taken into toxic byproducts. Men should have no more than 2 standard drinks per day when taking acetaminophen, women no more than one.

(Source: Harvard Men’s Health Watch, January 2014)