Dangers of Over-the-Counter Pain Medication: Safety Tips

We depend on over the counter (OTC) pain medications to help ease headaches, achy joints or raging fevers. However, could the deadly dangers from these medications outweigh the benefits?

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More than 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. Many of those Americans rely on trusted over-the-counter pain medications that contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen without knowing their dangerous consequences. Both ingredients, if taken in excess, can cause deadly side effects. However, because acetaminophen and ibuprofen are both used in a wide-range of over-the-counter products, you may be overdosing yourself without knowing it.

Acetaminophen: Your Liver’s Worst Enemy
Acetaminophen is one of the most popular painkillers in the country. It’s mostly known as the active ingredient in Tylenol; however, it can be found in other OTC products like Dayquil, Midol and Excedrin. If you take all of these products, you may be overdosing on acetaminophen, which can endanger your liver.

Classic medical cases of acetaminophen overdosing has led to potentially-fatal liver damage, requiring a liver transplant. The medical term for this extensive liver damage is fulminant hepatic necrosis – or rapid liver cell death.

However, the latest research shows that taking slightly too much acetaminophen over a period of several days could also damage your liver. Your liver cells are in charge of processing medications and chemicals that is absorbed through the GI tract. As the enzymes in your liver cells process acetaminophen, a toxin is released that damages liver cells. This toxin, N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI), binds to important functional enzymes and obstructs the liver’s antioxidant abilities. It literally becomes an anti-antioxidant. In high doses, it can cause liver failure.

Tylenol's suggested maximum dose of acetaminophen is 3000 mg a day. That’s only six regular extra-strength Tylenol pills. If you take more, you may put your liver at risk.

Also, you may be getting more acetaminophen than you’ve bargained for. It’s used in more than 600 medications, so make sure to examine the ingredient labels of the contents in your medicine cabinet. Look for labels that say “acetaminophen” or its abbreviation, “APAP.”

Also, if you show signs of liver damage, like yellowing skin, itchy skin, or darker urine, see medical treatment immediately. There is an antidote for acetaminophen damage that can be given at the hospital.

Ibuprofen: A Stroke Waiting to Happen
This common ingredient is used in OTC medications like Advil, Motrin and Midol. However, overdosing can put you at a higher risk for strokes and heart attacks. Furthermore, it can damage your kidneys and increase your risk for stomach bleeding.

All of these dangerous side effects relate to how ibuprofen works in the body. It stops two very important enzymes that promote inflammation and pain. By blocking these enzymes, cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2, ibuprofen also gradually increases blood pressure.

A 2011 meta-analysis investigated the long-term effects of ibuprofen and other painkillers. After reviewing data on over 100,000 people, they found that ibuprofen was associated with a 3x greater risk of stroke, compared to a placebo. They also found that those who took ibuprofen had a 1.3 times greater risk of a heart attack compared to those who took placebo pills.

The maximum daily dose of ibuprofen is 1200 mg, which equates to about 6 regular strength pills. Also, for chronic pain, you shouldn’t take it for more than 10 days. In fact, try not to take it more than three days a week. While taking ibuprofen, make sure to monitor your blood pressure, especially if it tends to run too high.

What Alternatives are Available?
Instead of relying on one medication to relieve your constant pain, you can switch back and forth between acetaminophen-based pain killers and ibuprofen. You can also try other pain-relieving alternatives:

  • Magnesium for Migraines: People with migraines often have lower levels of magnesium than people who do not have migraines. In one study, people who took magnesium had 41.6% lower number of migraine attacks. (Compared to 15.8% of those who took a placebo pill)
  • Patch Up the Back Pain: There are multiple medicated patches that target specific areas with much less threat to your liver and kidneys. Thermal patches are helpful, or you can find patches with methyl salicylate and menthol, which will help numb the area.

Learn more about alternative treatments for pain.