Cold season is here and sometimes the flu vaccine and washing our hands just aren’t enough to keep colds at bay. If you do get sick, make sure the over-the-counter (OTC) medication you take doesn’t damage your liver while it’s relieving your cold symptoms
Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) is the most popular painkiller in the United States. (In other parts of the world it is known as Paracetamol.) Not only is it found in the 8 billion acetaminophen pills Americans take each year to reduce aches and pains, it’s also found in cough and congestion medications. When we have hepatitis B, we need to be careful we don’t unintentionally overdose when we take acetaminophen pills and cough or sinus medications.
Dozens of cold and flu medications that promise to suppress our coughs and let us sleep through the night contain acetaminophen as one of their ingredients, but we won’t find “Tylenol” listed as an ingredient on their labels. Instead, we need to look carefully for “acetaminophen” on the label.
How much acetaminophen can adults safely take? Unless we have serious liver damage, such as cirrhosis, doctors say we can safely take the recommended dose of acetaminophen for a very limited period of time without damaging our livers. In fact, doctors routinely recommend this painkiller following a liver biopsy or to reduce interferon’s flu-like side effects.
The maximum dose of acetaminophen that adults can safely take over a 24-hour period is four grams, which equals eight extra-strength pills or about 12 regular-strength pills. (An extra-strength pill contains 500 mg and a regular strength pill contains 325 mg).
But, if we drink two alcoholic beverages a day, we need to cut that recommended acetaminophen dose in half, that’s how much acetaminophen can affect our livers. If we take too much of this drug at any one time, it builds up in our liver and causes serious side effects. For example, if an adult takes 14 to 20 extra-strength acetaminophen tablets in one dose, he suffers serious liver damage. That’s why some countries, such as Great Britain, restrict how many acetaminophen pills you can buy at a time because people have used this drug to commit suicide.
Acetaminophen is so powerful, studies show that taking the recommended doses of acetaminophen continuously for two weeks can cause mild to moderate—though reversible—liver damage. So limited use of acetaminophen is essential to protect our livers when we have hepatitis B.
Read the label carefully! If you’re taking acetaminophen already for fever and headaches and need something to reduce congestion or coughing, read the medication’s ingredients carefully so you don’t unintentionally double your acetaminophen intake. If you need a cough-suppressant to sleep, stop taking acetaminophen tablets if the cough medicine also contains it.
Follow instructions carefully: If the instructions say take the drug every six hours, follow the directions and don’t take it any sooner.
Is ibuprofen better for than acetaminophen when we have a cold? The Cleveland Clinic compared the two over-the-counter painkillers and found ibuprofen (common brand name Motrin) did not cause the liver toxicity that acetaminophen does.
Bottom line: Talk to your doctor about what painkiller or cough or sinus medication to take when you’re sick, and read the label carefully. If that sinus medication also advertises that it reduces headaches and other painful cold symptoms, it probably contains a acetaminophen. Limit your doses and don’t mistakenly double up on acetaminophen and damage your liver.
Click here for a complete list of drug brand names containing acetaminophen.
Can’t decide if you have a cold or the flu? Find out here.