According to Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is used by 50 million Americans each week to treat pain, fever, and the aches and pains associated with cold and flu. It’s become as common as aspirin.
And like aspirin, this over-the-counter drug is assumed to be quite safe. In fact, it gained its reputation as being safer than aspirin and the other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) because it was, as a famous actress told us in a TV ad, “gentle on the stomach.” Translation: it doesn’t cause gastrointestinal bleeding, while NSAIDs do.
Then why would neurologist and pain management specialist Aric Hausknecht, M.D., call it “by far the most dangerous drug ever made?”
Perhaps because, although when used in low doses its side effects are generally mild, it is notoriously over-dosed when used to address pain. According to the National Institutes of Health, acetaminophen overdose poisons the liver and leads to 56,000 Emergency Room visits, 2,600 hospitalizations, and 500 deaths each year.
A case in point, last May, 29-year-old Katlyn Boxhoven wound up needing an emergency life-saving liver transplant after taking just a little more and then a little more Tylenol for stomach pain over the course of a few days. The need for a liver transplant is not uncommon in cases of acetaminophen overdose.
Acetaminophen is broken down by the liver into mainly harmless products that are easily excreted. But when you take too much, normal breakdown pathways become overloaded, and a detour pathway is used that creates a toxic compound called NAPQI. If too much NAPQI is created, it exceeds the liver’s ability to detoxify it and can cause liver failure and death.
So how much acetaminophen is too much? In response to losing one too many multi-million dollar lawsuits from plaintiffs seriously harmed by Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson reduced their recommended maximum dose of 4,000 mg of acetaminophen per day for an adult to 3,000 mg.
However a lot depends upon the condition of your liver and detox capacities, and several more lawsuits have been filed against Johnson & Johnson by plaintiffs who claimed to have experienced liver failure even at the reduced dose.
And despite Johnson & Johnson’s recommendations, since most people assume that over-the-counter drugs are safe, they may not read the package directions carefully enough and, like Katlyn Boxhoven, don’t realize that they’re taking a potentially fatal drug.
Another problem is that acetaminophen is an ingredient in 600 different prescription and over-the-counter medications. So if you’re taking several different medications, your total amount of acetaminophen can easily become dangerously high. Here’s a list of some of the most common ones. Drinking alcohol also increases acetaminophen’s toxicity.
Early signs of acetaminophen poisoning can include diarrhea, sweating, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, abdominal pain, vomiting, fatigue, and paleness.
Acetaminophen has been associated with several other problems as well:
- Although extremely rare, two dangerous skin reactions to acetaminophen can lead to blindness and death, and a less serious skin reaction can produce pustules.
- A recent National Institutes of Health-funded study found an association between pregnant women’s ingestion of acetaminophen and significantly increased risk of Attention Deficit Disorder and also Autism in their children.
- A double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial published in the journal Circulation this year, found that taking 4,000 mg per day of acetaminophen increased systolic blood pressure by 5 mm Hg in hypertensive patients.
- Studies have linked taking acetaminophen with decreased mental acuity and blunted emotions.
It’s been one of our longstanding beliefs at Beyond Health that there is almost always a natural, non-toxic alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. Whether prescribed or over-the-counter, they all have undesirable side effects to one degree or another.
To solve the problem of pain, we need to know what’s causing it.
Pain results from inflammation that occurs when there is tissue damage. Tissue damage can be caused by one-time events, like accidents or a surgery, or chronic issues like structural imbalances, faulty body mechanics, overweight, under-use and over-use syndromes, autoimmune illness, chronic infection or allergic reactions, nutritional deficiency and toxicity. To effectively alleviate pain, tissue damage must be stopped, and an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, appropriate exercise and specific supplements adopted so that repair and healing can occur.
While working to understand and address the underlying causes of your pain, short-term solutions are needed to address symptoms caused by inflammation. Fortunately, there are many natural anti-inflammatories that are very effective in reducing pain. Curcumin, for example, outperformed the NSAID diclofenac in reducing pain and inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients in a 2012 study.
See Beyond Health’s NewsClips Blog under pain, inflammation, and arthritis for more information on natural solutions to the problem of pain.
Our “go to” for quick pain relief without negative side effects is the combination of Vitamin C to bowel tolerance and Quercetin (Cell Repair Formula or Quercetin Pro) at maximum doses. Numerous studies show that these two nutrients suppress pain and inflammation while building tissue integrity and stimulating the body’s own repair mechanisms.
- Bloom J. Pain In The Time Of Opioid Denial: An Interview With Aric Hausknecht, M.D. American Council of Science and Health. July 30, 2017.
- Ricono A. She thought it was a ‘safe solution,’ but overuse of this over-the-counter medication can be deadly. KCTV/Gray News. May 31, 2022.
- Keller A. Tylenol Side Effects. Drugwatch.com. Last Modified: July 18, 2022
- National Institutes of Health News Release. NIH-funded study suggests acetaminophen exposure in pregnancy linked to higher risk of ADHD, autism. October 30, 2019.
- MacIntyre IM. Regular acetaminophen use and blood pressure in people with hypertension: the PATH-BP Trial. Circulation. February 2022; 145(6): 416-423.
- Randles D. Acetaminophen attenuates error evaluation in cortex . Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. June 2016;2(6):899-906.
- BH Staff. Curcumin outperforms NSAIDs in Rheumatoid Arthritis. Beyond Health NewsClips Blog. October 31, 2013.