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Posted: June 05, 2009

Keeping Seniors Healthy

Identifying World's Most Common Pain Reliever, Fever Reducer

Q.  What is acetaminophen and why do I see it listed on so many products in the medicine cabinet? As my aunt’s caregiver, I think I should know.

A.  Acetaminophen is the most widely used pain-reliever and fever-reducer in the world. It is contained in more than 100 products. Tylenol is the best known over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen product. It is also a component of well known prescription drugs such as Darvocet and Percocet. Acetaminophen also is known as paracetamol and N-acetyl-p-aminophenol (APAP).

Acetaminophen is available without a prescription. Follow the directions on the package label carefully. If your doctor prescribes it for you, the prescription label will tell you how often to take it.

Be careful, because taking too much acetaminophen can lead to liver damage. The risk for liver damage may be increased if you drink three or more alcoholic drinks while using medicines that contain acetaminophen.

The maximum daily dose of acetaminophen is 4 grams in adults. The toxic dose of acetaminophen after a single acute ingestion is about 7 grams in adults. The at-risk dose may be lower in some susceptible populations, such as alcohol abusers. When dosing recommendations are followed, the risk of liver toxicity is extremely small.

Acetaminophen is one of the most common pharmaceutical agents involved in overdose, as reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

One of the problems with acetaminophen is its widespread use. You have to check your medicine cabinet to see what products contain acetaminophen. Then, if you’re taking more than one medication, be sure you don’t exceed the maximum daily dose.

Adults should not take acetaminophen for pain for more than 10 days without talking to a doctor. Acetaminophen should not be taken for high fever, for fever lasting more than 3 days, or for recurrent fever without a doctor's supervision.

There are basically two types of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Some contain acetaminophen and others contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Examples of OTC NSAIDs are aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen sodium (Aleve), and ketoprofen (Orudis).

NSAIDs are associated with stomach distress. You should talk to your doctor before using NSAIDS if you are over age 60, taking prescription blood thinners, have stomach ulcers or other bleeding problems.

NSAIDs can also cause reversible damage to the kidneys. The risk of kidney damage may increase in people who are over 60, have high blood pressure, heart disease or pre-existing kidney disease, and people who are taking a diuretic.

You should talk with your healthcare professional if you have questions about using an OTC medicine before using it in combination with other medicines -- either OTC or prescription medicine. Combining prescription medicines and OTC medicines can lead to problematic drug interactions.

All older adults should consult their doctors before taking any OTC medication or herbal.

Often, older adults use many drugs at the same time, including prescription and OTC drugs. They also process drugs differently than younger adults. This is why older adults need to be especially careful about drug-drug interactions.

If you’re a caregiver or a senior yourself, talk with your doctor about all of the drugs and herbal health products you or your loved one take. He or she can tell you whether you are at risk for having a bad reaction from taking an OTC drug.


Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey. He has written two published novels: Saltwater Taffy, and Local Angles. You can send your health-related questions to Fred at fred@healthygeezer.com.

© 2009 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.
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