In this column, I’d like to talk about keeping your liver and kidneys healthy when taking over-the-counter or non-prescription pain medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are among the most widely used medications in the world.
Most of us have taken some type of OTC pain reliever for occasional headaches, muscle aches or occasional arthritis pain. Recently there has been growing concern about the dangers of overdosing. When taken correctly, these medicines can be safe and effective.
However, when misused, they can have serious health risks, and it is not always easy to know when you’ve exceeded the maximum recommended amounts. It is important to realize these medicines are not without risk, and they should be used carefully.
“The first mistake people make,” said Penney Cowan, founder and executive director of the American Chronic Pain Association, “is thinking that if something is over-the-counter, it’s safe and they can do anything they want with it. These are potent drugs that can have severe side effects.”
There are basically two forms of OTC pain relievers, acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, known as NSAIDs.
Acetaminophen is a very common pain reliever and fever reducer found in Tylenol and a number of generic pain relievers. NSAIDs active ingredients include aspirin, ibuprophen, magnesium salicylate and naproxen and are found in Advil, Motrin, Aleve and other medications.
The dangers of OTC pain medicines are well documented. The most serious risk from overdose is the risk of liver damage. Most medicines are cleaned from the bloodstream by the liver. The liver has an important role in removing drugs from the blood and eliminating them from the body, but it is also susceptible to damage from drugs.
Acetaminophen can cause liver disease, liver failure, and death. Often, liver damage occurs before any symptoms show up. Acetaminophen has replaced viral hepatitis as the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States.