Your Health

What's In Your Painkiller? Study Finds Most Are Clueless

Less than third of consumers in a recent study knew that Tylenol contains acetaminophen. i i

Less than third of consumers in a recent study knew that Tylenol contains acetaminophen. Paul Sakuma/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Sakuma/AP
Less than third of consumers in a recent study knew that Tylenol contains acetaminophen.

Less than third of consumers in a recent study knew that Tylenol contains acetaminophen.

Paul Sakuma/AP

Acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol — can ease pain without upsetting your stomach, but taking too much of it can be harmful to your health.

Acetaminophen overdose is the top cause of acute liver failure, the Food and Drug Administration says. And earlier this year, the agency asked makers of narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin and Percocet, to cap the amount of acetaminophen they add to their pills.

But according to a study funded by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the Johnson & Johnson unit that makes Tylenol, keeping tabs on acetaminophen intake might be tricky. Many people may not know what over-the-counter drugs contain acetaminophen. Researchers found that of the 45 participants in six focus groups in the study, only 31 percent knew that acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol.

At the same time, three-quarters identified aspirin as the active ingredient in Bayer aspirin. A little less than half — 47 percent — said ibuprofen was in Motrin, 19 percent said Aleve contained naproxen sodium, and 19 percent said that ibuprofen was in Advil.

Michael S. Wolf, a professor of medicine at Northwestern and senior author of the study, says he was most surprised that only 41 percent of study participants said they always look at ingredient information when buying over-the-counter drugs. The results appear in the latest issue of the journal American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"We need public health campaigns to get people to recognize that just because they're over-the-counter products doesn't mean that there can't be harm done," says Wolf, who has worked as a paid consultant to McNeil.

Forty-four percent of the study participants read at 6th grade level or below. Wolf says that one of the strongest risk factors for poor drug use skills is literacy, but he said that people who are more educated still can make the same mistakes.

Even those who bother reading labels can misuse medicines, Wolf said. Sometimes acetaminophen is labeled as APAP, which can be confusing for people trying to determine whether they can take additional painkillers.

Researchers also looked at how drug manufacturers can better communicate whether a product has acetaminophen and the risks involved in taking it. Those in the focus groups indicated preferences for icons and wording that identified acetaminophen in a product and provided maximum dose information.

When asked whether Tylenol would implement these changes, Wolf said it was very possible that some will come soon, but he couldn't comment as to when. He stressed that usage of these symbols needed to go beyond one company.

"They need to get all producers of acetaminophen to ultimately buy into using a universal icon and messaging system," he said.

Wolf says this is the first of five studies looking at the prevalence of misuse of drugs, and the research will culminate in a clinical trial looking at a solution.

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