Gov’t warns on Tylenol, Vicodin

BY KATIE SIMS | JULY 16, 2009 7:15 AM

Reaching for a bottle of Tylenol to cure a pounding headache seems logical.

But liver failure and death can result from incorrect use, which is why a federal advisory committee asked the FDA to change its laws on pain relievers.

Local experts say a few simple pointers could help UI students use those drugs effectively, however.

“It’s very important to read the labels,” Ron Herman, a UI clinical associate professor and the director of the Iowa Drug Information Network, said.

The advisory committee addressed a label issue in April. Officials released rules that require all manufacturers of over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers to include more specific descriptions of potential side effects, such as liver damage and internal bleeding, on both the packages and bottles.

Acetaminophen — the main ingredient in over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol and Nyquil — causes more than 400 deaths and 42,000 hospitalizations in the United States every year from overdoses. Americans bought 28 billion doses of products containing the compound in 2005.

Still, the federal agency has noted advertisers focus more on a pain reliever’s effectiveness than side effects.

UI sophomore Morgan Wilcox makes a common mistake when she has a cold.

“I usually take Tylenol for my fever and Nyquil for my cough,” she said.

And simultaneously taking numerous medications that contain acetaminophen — as Wilcox does when sick — is a mistake.

Despite officials’ attempts to educate the public, people are often unaware that acetaminophen is in a lot of products and dosages might add up to dangerous levels.

The maximum daily dose of acetaminophen — four grams or 12 regular strength Tylenol — is lower for some people, including those with underlying liver disease and those who drink more than three alcoholic beverages every day.

If the FDA follows the recommendations from the advising committee, the agency would ban Vicodin and Percocet — along with the seven other drugs that combine acetaminophen and narcotics — from pharmacy shelves. The maximum daily dosage of over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol would drop to under 4,000 milligrams.

While Theresa Hobbs, a pharmacy practice specialist at the Ambulatory Care Pharmacy in Westlawn, doesn’t think those changes are bad ideas, she said she doubts whether people will change their habits.

“The products have been on the market for so long that I think a lot of people will continue to take them as they always have,” she said.

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