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Acetaminophen is the common drug name for the pain reliever Tylenol. According to MedicineNet.com1, the specific action of acetaminophen is not yet understood, though it is believed that it may reduce the production of certain chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling called prostaglandins. This makes an individual more tolerant to pain. It lowers fever by its action on the part of the brain that regulates heat, thus resulting in cooling of the body.

Acetaminophen History

AcetaminophenAcetaminophen was approved for use by the FDA in 1951. It became the drug of choice for children’s fevers over the former aspirin due to aspirin’s risk of serious side effects when taking during an infection with certain viruses. Generally deemed safe, it was also able to be taken by those who could not take aspirin due to stomach upset or certain conditions causing bleeding in the stomach.


Acetaminophen is used to treat mild to moderate pain symptoms often associated with:

  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Flu
  • Colds
  • Fever
  • Other conditions causing pain

This product may be sold alone or as in combination form with other medications. Common combination products include products for colds and flu, allergies, and insomnia, as well as certain products that treat other symptoms along with pain. It is available over-the-counter and as a prescription when combined with other medications.

In addition to easing symptoms of pain, acetaminophen also lowers fever, and reduces inflammation and swelling. This drug is also combined with other medications in prescription form to treat moderate to severe pain, such as in the prescription medication Vicodin.

Acetaminophen Dosage Information

For adults, it is available in regular strength at 325 mg pill, and extra strength at 500 mg per pill. Most adults take two pills at a time per dose. This two-pill dosage may be repeated every four to six hours as needed. The maximum daily dosage was a total of 4,000 mg, but according to an article on Medical News Today2, this limit is now decreased to a maximum of 3,000 mg per 24-hour period by recommendation of the manufacturers of Tylenol.

Children’s use of over-the-counter acetaminophen is based on the weight of the child. For example, a child weighing 35 pounds is able to take a dose of 160 mg of acetaminophen. Dosage recommendations previously were to give these doses no more than five times per day. However, if the same changes to adult dosing applies to children’s dosing as well, this limit may be reduced to taking the dosage no more than three times per day. A complete dosing chart for children can be found courtesy of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital through Oregon Health & Science University3.


Do not take this drug with combination products that also contain acetaminophen as overdose may result. Certain prescription medicines also contain this drug or interact with this drug. A physician or pharmacist should be consulted before taking acetaminophen with any prescription medication. This medicine is not recommended for use in those with liver problems, because acetaminophen is metabolized in the liver and could increase damage to the liver to a potentially fatal level. Do not take with alcohol, as acetaminophen and alcohol may increase the risk of liver damage which may be life-threatening.

Side Effects

There are no known side effects to using this medication, other than in cases of overdose or cases of allergic reaction.

According to WebMD, symptoms of allergy to this drug include:

  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling
  • Breathing difficulties

As with any drug, there is an always a possibility of side effects, so if you notice any symptoms after using acetaminophen, seek the advice of a physician or pharmacist.


Since acetaminophen is metabolized by the liver, potentially life-threatening liver damage may occur when taking more than the recommended dosage. Overdose is most likely to occur by taking more than one product containing acetaminophen at the same time, such as taking a pain reliever with a cold medicine. Symptoms of overdose may mimic illness such as the flu, resulting in delays in treatment.

These symptoms may include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea and cramping
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Death

In a study published in the medical journal Pharmacoepidemiol and Drug Safety4, it was discovered that acetaminophen overdose accounts for more than 56,000 emergency room visits and 26,000 hospitalizations each year as reported in national databases up to the year 2006.

Symptoms of overdose may not appear for hours or even days afterward. By then the liver damage has already occurred and may not be able to be treated. If overdose is suspected, it is important to contact either emergency services or a poison control center immediately. Acetaminophen overdose can be fatal.

Treatment of Overdose

In the hospital, acetaminophen overdose is often treated with the use of medication, activated charcoal, and laxatives. Pumping of the stomach may also occur if there is a chance of any acetaminophen remaining undigested within the stomach.

Acetaminophen Addiction Concerns

Although acetaminophen itself is not addictive, many of the prescription combination medications are, such as those containing narcotics. With addiction comes the risk of increased tolerance, a resistance to the drug’s effects. This leads to an addicted individual taking larger doses than prescribed. Not only do these narcotic and acetaminophen combination medicines adversely affect the liver in large amounts, but the narcotic part of the drug also depresses the central nervous system. This causes an increased risk of overdosing from these prescription combination medications.

Acetaminophen is generally a safe drug to take for mild to moderate pain with little risk of side effects. However, it is important to take all medication as directed to prevent the risk of accidental overdose.

  1. Christian Nordqvist; Tylenol Maximum Daily Dosage To Drop To 3,000mg Per Day From 4,000mg; Medical News Today
  3. Nourjah P., et. al.; Estimates of acetaminophen (Paracetomal)-associated overdoses in the United States; Pharmacoepidemiol and Drug Safety

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