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Acetaminophen is a very common drug that you may not have heard of, but that you have most likely taken before.

What is Acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen is a chemical compound commonly found in over-the-counter painkiller medications. Specifically, it is one of the major ingredients in the brands Tylenol, and Excedrin, among others.

Acetaminophen is a painkiller and a fever-reducing drug and is often used to suppress the pain or uncomfortable symptoms caused by conditions such as:

  • Arthritis.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle aches and pains.
  • Toothaches.
  • Back and spinal pain.
  • Colds.
  • Fevers.

Here is some more acetaminophen drug information:

Acetaminophen was discovered and used as a painkiller as early as the late 1800s and was approved for human use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1950.

Acetaminophen is in a class of drugs called analgesics which are painkillers, and a class of drugs called antipyretics which reduce fevers and fever symptoms.

The method by which acetaminophen blocks and reduces felt pain is by inhibiting the production of chemical messengers in the body called “prostaglandins” which act in the body to transmit pain and cause fever.

The body naturally produces these prostaglandins in response to an injury or illness, and acetaminophen helps to block that pain by suppressing the production of these messengers.

Other than this effect, acetaminophen is not known to be toxic in the body, but that is not to say that it is safe to take.

After acetaminophen is taken and produces its effects on the production of the prostaglandins, it passes through the bloodstream and eventually reaches the liver where it is broken down and produces another chemical substance that IS toxic to the human body. In small amounts the strain on the body is slight and the toxin is filtered out by the liver and detoxified.

However, in larger amounts and doses, this toxin can overwhelm the body’s ability to detoxify itself and the toxin starts killing liver cells and tissues causing liver damage.

Acetaminophen is most often compared to another painkiller drug called ibuprofen which is most commonly sold under the Aspirin brand name.

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are both painkiller analgesics but they differ in how they reduce pain and in the other effects they produce in the body.

Ibuprofen or Aspirin also reduces felt pain by inhibiting the production of the prostaglandins, but where acetaminophen suppresses the production specifically around the central nervous system, ibuprofen works in a more general body-wide capacity.

Ibuprofen also works in the body as an anticoagulant or blood thinner by inhibiting the formation of blood platelets. Acetaminophen does not act on the body in this way nor does it tend to cause the stomach irritation that ibuprofen is known for.

Is Acetaminophen Addictive?

The short answer is yes.

The full answer is a bit longer.

Like with all drugs, there is the potential for everyone to experience them differently, but there are a few key aspects of addiction that generally hold true and acetaminophen is no exception.

Here are some of the key aspects of drug addiction and other problems that can arise from drug use and abuse:

  • Tolerance. This is a very common symptom of regular use of any drug even when used as prescribed. Tolerance is when due to regular exposure to a drug or substance, the body begins to develop a resistance or a defense (can also be caused by the depletion of the body’s natural resources of vitamins and minerals) to the drug and require larger or more frequent (or both larger, and more frequent) doses of the drug for the user to continue experiencing the positive effects of the drug that they want. Tolerance is one of the most common forms of side effects that regular acetaminophen users are likely to experience. It should come as no surprise taking larger and more frequent doses of a drug can easily lead to an overdose.
  • Overdose. This one is rather self-descriptive. When a user takes too large a dose of a drug or too much of the drug in a 24 hour period for their body to safely detoxify itself, they will overdose. An overdose of acetaminophen can have several negative side-effects, but the two major effects are liver damage and death from the drug toxicity. In addition to taking large doses, mixing acetaminophen with other substances such as alcohol can greatly increase the risk of overdose.
  • Dependence. When drugs are used over time, even at normal usage levels, the body can become accustomed to the presence of the drugs in its system. It may become difficult for the body to operate at normal levels without the drug. Dependence can also be mental with the user feeling that they need to have the drug to feel like themselves or get through there day. When the body has developed a dependence and the user tries to stop taking the drug they will experience symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Withdrawal. This is the symptoms the user will experience when the body is dependent on a drug that the user is no longer taking, or has a period of time when they don’t or can’t take the drug. The symptoms of acetaminophen withdrawal are usually much less than those of some other drugs, and not everyone may experience them at all, but for those who do, they can be severely uncomfortable and typically can include: Severe migraine headaches, nausea and vomiting, and cravings for the drug to make the symptoms stop.
  • Abuse. This is when the user takes a drug in ways not recommended by their doctor or the drug manufacturer. In the case of acetaminophen, because it is often considered to be “safe” compared to many other drugs the risk of abuse is actually quite high. Because it is readily available for purchase, in many cases without a prescription, and users often use it on a self-medicated, as-needed basis, acetaminophen is often overused. Also due to the common occurrence of tolerance, users can often tend to continue to increase the doses that they regularly take which can easily lead to a situation where their use exceeds the maximum safe daily dosage.
  • Addiction. While addiction to acetaminophen is definitely less common than for many other painkillers and other drugs, it is far from unheard of. Addiction to drugs or other substances like alcohol is typically defined by the use of the drug becoming a habit that despite negative effects on the user or those close to the user, they can not bring themselves to quit. This is accompanied by a strong and often overpowering compulsion to get and continue taking the drug, often to the exclusion of, or at the expense of themselves and/or those that love them.

What Can Be Done About Acetaminophen Addiction or Abuse?

If you or someone you know is struggling with acetaminophen abuse or addiction the good news is that there is help to be had.

Everyone experiences addiction differently, but because the detox and withdrawal from acetaminophen tend to be comparatively less uncomfortable and dangerous than many other drugs it is likely that an addiction recovery specialist could help you through that process without the need to go to an inpatient rehab facility. Then they would just need to guide you to the best program for you to help you handle any underlying reasons that may have contributed to your addiction and to give you the tools, skills, and support to help you help yourself to stay drug-free as you go forward with your life after addiction.

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