(12/16/13) - While there is no doubt pain relievers do work for a lot of people, a lot of us are taking too much, often without even knowing it. Drugs like acetaminophen are very popular, but dozens of people die from accidentally taking too much of it, every year.
When you're in pain, they make it stop, but surveys show a quarter of Americans routinely take more over-the-counter pain pills than they should.
"We're a medicine-taking culture. We, we, reach for a pill for all of our medical problems," says Dr. Alexander Kuo.
Acetaminophen, found in Tylenol, can be dangerous in high doses. In fact, it is the nation's leading cause of acute liver failure.
"The problem is when people abuse it, when they take more than, um, uh, is healthy for them," says Kuo, of UC San Diego Health Center.
For healthy people, the standard dose is no more than four-thousand milligrams in a 24-hour period. People with chronic liver disease, such as cirrhosis, should have less than two-thousand milligrams. People who drink alcohol should also be cautious since alcohol combined with acetaminophen can lower the threshold for liver damage.
A big problem is that acetaminophen is found in other meds like Nyquil, Sudafed, Robitussin and Benadryl.
So, you might be doubling your dose without knowing it, Kuo says, "suddenly, they've gone from a safe amount of Tylenol to an unsafe amount."
Acetaminophen overdose sends as many as 78,000 Americans to the ER every year.
Toxicologist Richard Clark says other pain drugs, like ibuprofen and aspirin also carry risks, "if you took the maximum daily dose of ibuprofen for a week or two, 30-percent of everybody is going to have microscopic hemorrhages of their stomach."
You should only take them when you need them and always follow dosing instructions, Kuo adds, "limited use is perfectly safe."
Great Britain, Switzerland, and New Zealand have limited how much acetaminophen consumers can buy at one time or require it to be sold only by pharmacies.
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