Acetaminophen: Know Your Dose

BlogHer Original Post

As a Nurse Practitioner, I've had the privilege of caring for women of all different ages, at different stages of their lives, needing care for a range of different health conditions.

One of the most common reasons for which women seek care is managing pain. Women tend to experience chronic pain, such as headaches and migraines, neck and back pain more commonly than men do.

These conditions may cause women to reach for over-the-counter and prescription medicines for relief and anyone who suffers these conditions knows how uncomfortable -- and sometimes debilitating -- they can be. For many, medicines containing acetaminophen, such as Tylenol or generic equivalent, are what they feel comfortable using to relieve pain and they default to it when seeking relief from a variety of conditions. After all, acetaminophen is considered safe for women to use during pregnancy and it is in medicine given to young children for pain relief and fever reduction.

Photo by Debs. (Flickr)

Patients have come to me assuming that they can take medicine containing acetaminophen without regard to dosing instructions because of this familiarity, the association with pregnancy and its frequent use with children. Yes, when used properly, acetaminophen is safe and effective. The problem arises when we take more than we should.

Consider this: acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in America. It is in more than 600 over-the-counter and prescription medicines, including pain relievers, fever reducers, sleep aids as well as cough and cold and allergy medicines. Yet, without carefully reading the label, many Americans don't know if their medicines contain acetaminophen, which impacts their dosing when they begin to combine products to deal with pain while also taking medication for an unrelated medical condition.

Reading the labels of what you are taking is important because there is a limit to how much acetaminophen can safely be taken in one day. Taking more than is directed can lead to liver damage.

Education is always the best defense, and it is critical for patients to know that on prescription labels, acetaminophen is sometimes listed as "APAP," "acetam," or other shortened versions of the word, so when you read a label make sure you are aware of what the ingredient notations mean. Look it up if you don't know!

The Know Your Dose campaign has three simple steps for safe acetaminophen use:

  • Always read and follow the label on your medicine.
  • Know if your medicines contain acetaminophen.
  • Never take two medicines that contain acetaminophen at the same time.

The good weather always brings with it an opportunity to pay special attention to good health. Acetaminophen is safe. But like any useful product, it needs to be used safely.

Dr. Moore is a dual certified nurse practitioner in adult and women’s health. She is a Professor of Nursing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she developed the women’s health nurse practitioner program in 1992. As a practicing clinician, she has maintained an active ambulatory OB/GYN practice in Nashville since 1990.

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