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Pain Management Health Center

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FDA May Restrict Acetaminophen

Advisers Tell the Agency to Lower Over-the-Counter Dose of Popular Pain Drug
By Kathryn Foxhall
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 1, 2009 -- The FDA should put new restrictions on acetaminophen, an advisory committee recommended Tuesday, saying the move would protect people from the potential toxicity that can cause liver failure and even death.

The FDA does not have to follow its advisory committees’ recommendations, but it usually does. It will likely be months before the FDA makes a final decision on the drug.

You might not know "acetaminophen," because that's the drug's generic name. One of the nation’s top drugs for pain relief, acetaminophen is found in many over-the-counter products -- including Tylenol, aspirin-free Anacin, Excedrin, and numerous cold medicines. It's also found in many prescription drugs.

Billions of doses of acetaminophen are used safely every year. But acetaminophen-related overdoses cause 56,000 emergency room visits, 26,000 hospitalizations, and 458 deaths annually, according to studies done between 1990 and 1998.

Some people inadvertently take more than is recommended. Others -- such as people with underlying liver disease -- are more at risk of liver injury from acetaminophen use. Because acetaminophen is in so many products, people sometimes take two or more products containing acetaminophen without realizing it. That risk extends to children, who may be poisoned because they swallow the medication. Sometimes caregivers mistakenly give children too much acetaminophen.

Acetaminophen: Limiting Dosage Amounts

The advisory committee voted that the single adult acetaminophen dose should be no more than 650 milligrams, significantly less that the current 1,000 milligrams often contained in two tablets of certain over-the-counter pain products. The panel of 37 doctors and other experts also said that the maximum total dose for 24 hours, now at 4,000 milligrams, should be decreased.

Some advisory committee members said the move should help lower the overall amounts of acetaminophen that people take. Some on the panel said they were influenced by research indicating there are changes in liver function in some people who had taken only the currently recommended levels.

Call to Eliminate Some Acetaminophen Products

In a recommendation that would be a real change for the prescription industry, the committee voted 20 to 17 that prescription products that combine acetaminophen with other medications should be eliminated. Today, billions of doses of products are prescribed in which acetaminophen is combined with narcotics, according to the FDA. Some brand-name pain prescriptions containing acetaminophen include Vicodin, Lortab, Maxidone, Norco, Zydone, Tylenol with codeine, Percocet, Endocet, and Darvocet.

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