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What Should I do About an Acetaminophen Overdose?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Acetaminophen or paracetamol, also known by the brand name Tylenol® can be a useful drug under many circumstances. The medication can help lower fevers and works well as a pain reliever. It is widely available in over the counter forms, and also is an active ingredient in many prescription pain relievers that contain other medications like hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and codeine. There are numerous cold and flu preparations that can contain acetaminophen too.

For many years, this drug was thought safe even when taken in higher than prescribed amounts, but studies now show that acetaminophen overdose is extremely hazardous, and may be particularly indicated in fatality and in causing irreversible liver damage. Effects of the drug at lower doses can be dangerous too, especially if the medication is combined with alcohol consumption. Presently, acetaminophen overdose is one of the most common forms of drug overdose treated by hospitals.

There are several difficulties with acetaminophen overdose. First, unless huge doses are ingested, a person who takes too much may not show any outward symptoms until several hours after ingestion. Moreover, especially in kids, the difference between appropriate dose and overdose can be very small. It’s important not to wait for signs of overdose to develop. People should be safe rather than sorry and get immediate medical attention if they suspect accidental or intentional acetaminophen overdose.

Emergency medical attention means contacting emergency services if an overdose occurs. Overdose could come in the form of a child gaining access to a single extra strength pill, one that perhaps is lying on the floor. Also, for parents, accidentally giving too much by administering children’s paracetamol to an infant can easily lead to toxicity. Of course, not all parents will recognize too much of this drug has been taken.

Some of the following signs may suggest overdose has occurred:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Refusing food
  • Heavy Perspiration
  • Convulsions
  • Breathing Difficulties
  • Coma

Help at hospitals is best given within eight hours of the acetaminophen overdose, and there is no adequate treatment at home for this grave condition. Really the best treatment, even if a person only guesses or suspects too much paracetamol has been taken is to contact emergency services and get treatment right away. It is not worth waiting since early treatment has much greater chance of success.

It is not advised that adults who drink alcohol use acetaminophen as a pain reliever or to treat hangovers, and more of this drug than the recommended dosage is never better. Adults should always read labels if they take more than one over the counter medication to make certain that they aren’t accidentally taking two forms of acetaminophen at the same time. Any time a person takes too much, either accidentally or intentionally, they need immediate medical treatment in order to prevent permanent liver damage.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
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Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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