And the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a not-for-profit association representing the makers of over-the-counter medicines and nutritional supplements, cited FDA data showing that more than 80 percent of fatalities associated with over-the-counter and prescription acetaminophen products involve intentional overdoses -- in other words, suicide attempts.
Savard agreed that, in most cases, acetaminophen is safe.
"The truth is that acetaminophen is the safest choice for pain and fever," she said. "The alternatives -- inflammation blockers, like aspirin and ibuprofen -- have even more safety concerns. They can cause ulcers and bleeding, high blood pressure, and kidney disease. With acetaminophen, if you stick to the right dose and don't take too much, it's generally very safe."
Still, the hazards of acetaminophen overdose have worried many poeple for years. In 2002, Dr. Peter Lurie of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen appeared before the FDA's Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee to relay concerns about unintentional overdoses associated with acetaminophen. In November 2005, a study in the journal Hepatology found that the majority of acute liver failure cases in the United States were due to acetaminophen poisoning. And more recent research has suggested that these cases may be on the rise.
Fortunately, Savard said, consumers can go a long way in terms of protecting themselves if they simply monitor the drugs they are taking and, especially, if they are aware of the ingredients in the products they take to ease their pain.
"More than 200 products have acetaminophen in them," Savard said. "Everything you put in your mouth counts -- and that includes prescription drugs too, which can also contain acetaminophen."
Savard's advice to consumers? Read every label carefully and keep track of how many doses of acetaminophen you take per day. She added that consumers must also become more savvy to clues on labels that point to acetaminophen.
"When you're checking prescription drugs like these, look for the letters 'APAP,' which designate that the medication contains acetaminophen," she said. "Drugs like codeine and oxycodone often come with acetaminophen but, as I said, it's labeled as 'APAP.'"