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Acetaminophen

What is acetaminophen? How does it work (mechanism of action)?

Acetaminophen belongs to a class of drugs called analgesics (pain relievers) and antipyretics (fever reducers). The exact mechanism of action of acetaminophen is not known. It may reduce the production of prostaglandins in the brain. Prostaglandins are chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling. Acetaminophen relieves pain by elevating the pain threshold, that is, by requiring a greater amount of pain to develop before a person feels it. It reduces fever through its action on the heat-regulating center of the brain. Specifically, it tells the center to lower the body's temperature when the temperature is elevated.

What are the uses for acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen is used for the relief of fever as well as aches and pains associated with many conditions. Acetaminophen relieves pain in mild arthritis but has no effect on the underlying inflammation, redness, and swelling of the joint. If the pain is not due to inflammation, acetaminophen is as effective as aspirin.

Acetaminophen is as effective as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen (Motrin) in relieving the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee. Unless directed by a physician, acetaminophen should not be used for longer than 10 days.

How to use Acetaminophen

Take this product by mouth as directed. Follow all directions on the product package. If you are uncertain about any of the information, consult your doctor or pharmacist.

There are many brands and forms of acetaminophen available. Read the dosing instructions carefully for each product because the amount of acetaminophen may be different between products. Do not take more acetaminophen than recommended. (See also Warning section.)

If you are giving acetaminophen to a child, be sure you use a product that is meant for children. Use your child's weight to find the right dose on the product package. If you don't know your child's weight, you can use their age.

Serious side effects of acetaminophen include:

  • Toxic epidermal necrolysis
  • Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • Liver failure
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome
  • Gastrointestinal hemorrhage
  • Laryngeal edema
  • Kidney toxicity
  • Liver toxicity/liver failure
  • Hyperammonemia
  • Agranulocytosis
  • Low white blood cell count (leukopenia, neutropenia)
  • Low platelet count (thrombocytopenia)

Before taking acetaminophen

tell your doctor and pharmacist if you are allergic to acetaminophen, any other medications, or any of the ingredients in the product. Ask your pharmacist or check the label on the package for a list of ingredients.

tell your doctor and pharmacist what prescription and nonprescription medications, vitamins, nutritional supplements, or herbal products you are taking or plan to take. Be sure to mention anticoagulants ('blood thinners') such as warfarin (Coumadin); isoniazid (INH); certain medications for seizures including carbamazepine; medications for pain, fever, coughs, and colds; and phenothiazines (medications for mental illness and nausea). Your doctor may need to change the doses of your medications or monitor you carefully for side effects.

tell your doctor if you have ever developed a rash after taking acetaminophen.

tell your doctor if you are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breast-feeding. If you become pregnant while taking acetaminophen, call your doctor.

if you drink three or more alcoholic beverages every day, do not take acetaminophen. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the safe use of alcoholic beverages while taking acetaminophen.

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