July 28, 2011 — -- It's the painkiller found everywhere. Products like Tylenol, NyQuil and Theraflu all contain one key ingredient: acetaminophen.
With more than 600 medications containing the drug, doctors say patients often don't realize how much of it they are consuming. Even painkillers like Vicodin contain acetaminophen. And in some cases, patients unknowingly overdose by mixing medications.
To addres the problem, Johnson & Johnson announced today that the company would reduce the maximum daily dose of its Extra Strength Tylenol pain reliever to lower the risk of accidental overdoses.
Dr. Michael Wolf, the associate division chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern, said Johnson & Johson was moving in a good direction.
"People misunderstand over-the-counter products," Wolf said. Besides taking several medications that can contain acetaminophen, he said his research also found that people "don't think they have to stick to the recommended daily dose."
Wolf said that recent studies found that acetaminophen overdose was the leading cause of acute liver failure. Excessive use of acetaminophen can cause liver damage and even prove fatal.
By the fall, labels on the bottles will list the maximum daily dose as six pills, or a total of 3,000 milligrams, down from eight pills a day or 4,000 milligrams.
Acetaminophen is the leading cause of liver failure in the U.S., sending 56,000 Americans to the hospital each year.
Dr. William M. Lee, a professor of internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, called the move "a prudent first step."
"Industry is coming around," he told ABC News today, "but there's still a big problem. Lots of people are still overdosing."
In 2009, an advisory committee recommended that the Food and Drug Administration lower the amount of acetaminophen in over-the-counter medications. Though the FDA ordered drugmakers to reduce the amount of the painkiller in prescription medications by 50 percent, critics warned that prescription medications covered only 20 percent of the acetaminophen used in the U.S.
Though Northwestern's Wolf said said Johnson & Johnson's move was a great start, he said more needed to be done.
"Next we need to work on public awareness of what's in [medicine], and how it can harm you. We need to help people understand that there's a limit to how much [medicine] can be taken in a day and why it's important not to take too much."