Acetaminophen is the chemical name for the widely used pain and fever reliever in Tylenol and other over-the-counter 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 get 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 milligrams (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.
Dr. Lai Becker suggests these guidelines for taking acetaminophen safely:
Stick to recommended doses. When taking acetaminophen, don't be tempted to add a little extra to the recommended dose. A small-bodied person should stay on the low end of the recommended dose range (3,000 mg).
Cold and flu remedies count. When you reach for an over-the-counter cough, cold, or flu product, take a look at the label. Does it contain acetaminophen? If so, add the dose to your daily total.
Know your pills. Over-the-counter acetaminophen pills may contain 325, 500, or 650 mg of the drug. Be extra cautious when taking the 500 or 650 mg pills.
Go easy on alcohol. Drinking alcohol causes the liver to convert more of the acetaminophen you take into toxic byproducts. Men should have no more than two standard drinks per day when taking acetaminophen, women no more than one.
Beware of medication interactions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your prescription medications could interact badly with acetaminophen.
Read the full-length article: "Acetaminophen safety: Be cautious but not afraid"
Also in the January 2014 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch:
The Harvard Men's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at www.health.harvard.edu/mens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).
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