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OTC painkillers can stop pain and fever in their tracks — but did you know that they can carry some pretty severe risks if you take too many of them, or for too long? Learn what the risks and benefits of Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, and Aspirin are here.

Headaches. Muscle pain. Menstrual cramps. Fevers. Tummy upsets. We all fall victim to ailments that can be remedied by over-the-counter painkillers sometimes, and 78 percent of us have no qualms about running to the pharmacy or to our personal medicine cabinet to get them.

A consumer poll revealed that a third of all Americans misuse over-the-counter medication in some way, usually by taking more than the recommended dose or combining different medications, and that many consumers lack appropriate information about the products they, sometimes routinely, rely on. 

This data is alarming — the fact that a painkiller is available over the counter often makes us think of the medication as completely safe, but even OTC painkillers carry risks, risks much greater than you may be aware of, and especially if you find yourself reaching for over-the-counter painkillers on a near-daily basis. 

Which painkiller is right for you, what are the risks of taking over the counter painkillers, and when should you simply see your doctor about your pain?

Acetaminophen 

Acetaminophen, also known as Paracetamol, Panadol, and Tylenol, among other brand names, is an over-the-counter analgesic that can reduce fever and relieve toothaches, headaches, period cramps, backaches, muscle pain, and pain caused by arthritis. In contrast to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Acetaminophen does not help reduce inflammation. It's the most commonly used OTC medication in the US, with over 50 million people using it each week!

Acetaminophen is often recommended as a pain reliever for children because it is safer than other over the counter painkillers for them, but it is important to use a medication meant for children, in the right dose — which is determined on the basis of weight. Those who aren't sure what the right dosage is should consult their pharmacist. Acetaminophen is available as tablets, liquids, and suppositories.

Regardless of what form you take, you need to be cognizant of the maximum dosage as an adult as well. The FDA set the daily maximum at 4,000 mg, while many doctors agree that nobody should take more than 3,250 mg in a single day. 

Children should not be taking over-the-counter pain relievers that contain Acetaminophen without a doctor's recommendation for longer than three days in a row, while adults should not take these medications for longer than 10 days without seeing their doctor. Anyone who frequently finds themselves reaching for Acetaminophen should contact their doctor to discuss their symptoms, and discuss diagnosis and alternative treatment. 

What do you need to know about the safety of OTC products that contain Acetaminophen?

  • Acetaminophen carries a lower risk of side effects than many other OTC painkillers — it is unlikely that you will experience stomach problems and heart problems as the result of taking Acetaminophen.
  • However, there are risks. The FDA warns that you risk damaging your liver if you take one product that contains Acetaminophen for a headhache and then take another for cold symptoms while the initial drug is still active. The same risks apply if you take a higher dosage than recommend or take the next dose too early. The FDA also warns that Acetaminophen can cause skin rashes, including Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN), some of which are potentially fatal. 
  • Acetaminophen and alcohol are a bad combination. If you drink after having taken a product that contains Acetaminophen, your risk of side effects increases.
  • Extended-release tablets containing Acetaminophen should never be chewed. This can cause the whole dose to be released at once, again increasing your risk of side effects dramatically. 

Should you experience a skin rash, swelling (especially of the tongue or throat), shortness of breath or light-headedness and dizziness after taking Acetaminophen, contact your doctor right away or seek emergency medical assistance. 

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