You have flu symptoms, so you’ve been getting some relief for the past two days by taking a cough and flu medicine every few hours. Late in the day, you have a headache and you think about grabbing a couple of acetaminophen tablets to treat the pain.
Stop right there.
What you may not realize is that more than 600 medications, both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC), contain the active ingredient acetaminophen to help relieve pain and reduce fever. Taken carefully and correctly, these medicines can be safe and effective. But taking too much acetaminophen can lead to severe liver damage.
Acetaminophen is a common medication for relieving mild to moderate pain from headaches, muscle aches, menstrual periods, colds and sore throats, toothaches, backaches and to reduce fever. It is also used in combination medicines, which have more than one active ingredient to treat more than one symptom.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that Americans catch one billion colds per year and as many as 20% of Americans get the flu. Moreover, 7 in 10 Americans use OTC medicines to treat cold, cough and flu symptoms.
Fathia Gibril, M.D., M.HSc., a supervisory medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), explains that consumers looking for relief from a cold or the flu may not know that acetaminophen comes in combination with many other medications used to treat those symptoms. “So if you’re taking more than one medicine at a time,” she says, “you may be putting yourself at risk for liver damage.”
Symptoms of acetaminophen overdose may take many days to appear, and even when they become apparent, they may mimic flu or cold symptoms. The current maximum recommended adult dose of acetaminophen is 4,000 milligrams per day, To avoid exceeding that dose:
- don’t take more than one OTC product containing acetaminophen,
- don’t take a prescription and an OTC product containing acetaminophen, and
- don’t exceed the recommended dose on any product containing acetaminophen.
“When you’re at the store deciding which product to buy, check the ‘Drug Facts’ label of OTC cold, cough and flu products before using two or more products at the same time,” Gibril says. If you’re still not sure which to buy, ask the pharmacist for advice.