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Acetaminophen Poisoning (Tylenol Overdose) Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Recovery

Reviewed on 2/27/2020

What Is Acetaminophen Poisoning (Tylenol Overdose)?

Acetaminophen is one of the most common medications found in households. It is used for the treatment of pain and to lower fever. The recommended maximum dose per day has dropped from 4000 mg to 3000 mg because other medications have acetaminophen as an added compound. Inadvertently, people taking maximum Tylenol doses were overdosing because they were also taking other medicines at the same time that contained acetaminophen. 

Over many years, it has been used countless times by many people and it has proven to be a safe and effective medication. However, if taken in excess amounts, acetaminophen can cause life-threatening illness.

Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol. It is also found in many other over-the-counter medications people can buy at the drug store and in many prescription drugs.

Common drugs include:

Acetaminophen in overdose can seriously damage the liver. If the damage is severe, a liver transplant may be necessary in order to save a life.

  • The antidote to acetaminophen overdose is N-acetylcysteine (NAC). It is most effective when given within 8 hours of ingesting acetaminophen. Indeed, NAC can prevent liver failure if given early enough. For this reason, it is absolutely necessary that poisoning be recognized, diagnosed, and treated as early as possible.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Overdose?

Soon after taking an overdose of acetaminophen, the person may have no symptoms from taking a toxic amount. They may remain symptom free for up to 24 hours after taking a toxic overdose of acetaminophen.

After this initial period, the following symptoms are common in acetaminophen (Tylenol) poisoning:

  1. Nausea
  2. Vomiting
  3. Not feeling well
  4. Not able to eat or poor appetite
  5. Abdominal pain
  6. Confusion

What Causes Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Poisoning?

Illness from acetaminophen overdose is caused primarily by liver damage. Acetaminophen is primarily metabolized by the liver. Too much acetaminophen can overwhelm the way the liver normally functions.

Alcohol abuse, infections, and other illnesses

  • If the liver is already damaged because of infection, alcohol abuse, or other illness, a person may be more susceptible to damage from acetaminophen overdose.
  • For this reason, people with liver illnesses or people who chronically consume large amounts of alcohol should be particularly careful when taking acetaminophen and should consult their doctor prior to taking acetaminophen compounds.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently recommends that anyone consuming more than three alcoholic beverages per day should not take acetaminophen or other over-the-counter pain medications.

Long-term use of acetaminophen

Long-term use of acetaminophen in recommended doses has not been shown to be harmful to the liver, even when combined with moderate (about one alcoholic beverage per day) alcohol consumption.

QUESTION

Long-term heavy alcohol consumption can cause: See Answer

Is Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Poisoning an Emergency?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or 911 if you, another person, or caregiver suspects acetaminophen overdose

Overall it is important that anyone suspected to have taken an overdose of acetaminophen get treatment early, before symptoms occur. Starting treatment early can greatly improve the outcome.

Seek emergency medical care at a hospital's emergency department in these situations.

  • If the person suspected to have taken an overdose of acetaminophen is unconscious, semiconscious, or not breathing, call 911 immediately.
  • Go to the hospital's emergency department if the poison control center instructs you to do so.
  • Seek emergency care if you are unsure of the types and amounts of medication taken.
  • If a child took acetaminophen without adult supervision and may have taken an overdose, seek immediate medical attention.

What Procedures and Tests Diagnose Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Poisoning?

A doctor will diagnose acetaminophen overdose with the following methods:

  • History: The doctor will attempt to determine the time and amount of acetaminophen taken. Having access to all medication bottles that the person may have taken will help the doctor to determine the maximum amount taken.
  • Physical: The doctor will look for signs and symptoms of acetaminophen poisoning. These may include jaundice (yellow skin), abdominal pain, vomiting, and other signs and symptoms.
  • Laboratory tests: A blood level of acetaminophen will aid in determining if a toxic dose was taken. The doctor may order more than one blood level of acetaminophen, and test for other drugs taken. In addition, the doctor may order other blood and urine tests as needed.

What Home Remedies Treat an Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Overdose?

There are no home remedies for acetaminophen poisoning. If you or someone you know has taken or may have taken an overdose of acetaminophen call 911 or emergency services and then call the Poison Control Centers of America at 800-222-1222 immediately 

  • If the person is unconscious or not breathing, caregivers should call 911 immediately for emergency medical services.
  • If the person is awake and breathing without symptoms, call a local poison control center or the American Association of Poison Control Centers at (800) 222-1222.
  • If the person is awake and breathing with some symptoms, the person should be transported to an Emergency Department immediately.

The following information is helpful for both medical personnel and poison control center experts:

  • All medication that the person has taken, both prescribed and nonprescribed (have the bottles nearby)
  • All medications that are available in the house, prescribed and nonprescribed
  • The time that the person took the medication
  • Any illegal or "borrowed" drugs

What Is the Medical Treatment for Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Overdose?

Treatment in the emergency department depends on the condition of the person and any other medications taken.

If someone is suspected of having taken an overdose but has no symptoms, the doctor may begin the following treatment:

  • Emptying of the stomach: In the very few cases in which a person comes to the hospital minutes after taking the overdose, the doctor may attempt to empty the stomach. This can be accomplished by inducing vomiting or by placing a large tube through the person's mouth and into the stomach, putting fluid in and then pumping it out (gastric lavage).
  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC): NAC is the antidote for toxic acetaminophen overdose. It is generally given by mouth. The medication has a foul odor but may be mixed with juice or other flavorings to make it taste better. If the person cannot take NAC by mouth, a tube may be placed through the mouth and into the stomach to help administer it. If giving NAC by this method is not possible, the doctor may choose to give it by IV. NAC is generally given for 20-72 hours.
  • Activated charcoal: Activated charcoal can be given by mouth to bind any drug remaining in the gastrointestinal tract.

After being discharged from the hospital or doctor's office, patients may be asked to return for an examination or blood tests to check the condition of their liver and their general health. The doctor may instruct patients to avoid alcohol and certain medications. In addition, if the medication was taken as part of a suicide attempt, psychiatric consultation is usually advised.

How Serious Is Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Poisoning?

The outcome for someone who has an acetaminophen overdose depends largely on three factors:

  1. the amount of acetaminophen ingested,
  2. the timing of emergency treatment, and
  3. the initial general health of the person.

If a toxic dose is taken and emergency treatment is delayed, liver failure may follow. Liver failure may mean that a liver transplant is needed. Alternatively, if treatment of a toxic overdose is begun early, the person may recover with no long-term health problems.

Can You Prevent Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Overdose?

People can take these steps to avoid acetaminophen overdose.

  • Always securely close acetaminophen containers and use child-proof bottles. Keep all medication out of the reach of children and securely locked up.
  • Know the correct dose of acetaminophen and the amount of acetaminophen in the preparation being are used. If taken in recommended doses, there is no risk of poisoning from acetaminophen.
  • Never mix different medications if both medications contain acetaminophen, except if instructed to do so by a doctor. For example, acetaminophen with codeine and cold medicine containing acetaminophen should not be taken together. Read product labels. They clearly indicate the contents.
  • If you or a family member is depressed or suicidal, remove all medications and dangerous substances from the house and seek medical attention immediately.
  • If a person is unsure about how and when to take pain medications, ask a doctor for a plan. Write this plan down and follow it.
  • When a person is given a new medication, always make sure the doctor knows all of the medication and supplements that the person is taking, both prescribed and non-prescribed. The easiest way to do this is to keep a written list of medications and nutritional supplements and go over it with a doctor.
  • Do not take acetaminophen if you consume more than three alcoholic beverages per day. Indeed, if you consume more than three alcoholic beverages per day, you should consult a physician before taking any pain medications and to discuss ways to reduce your alcohol consumption.

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Drug-Induced Liver Disease

Drug-induced liver diseases are diseases of the liver that are caused by physician-prescribed medications, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, hormones, herbs, illicit ("recreational") drugs, and environmental toxins.

Many drugs can cause liver diseases. Examples include pain-relievers such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), certain antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-cancer agents, and drugs used in controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol , diabetes, and irregular heart rhythms.

Drug-induced liver diseases vary widely in severity. The spectrum of diseases include 1) abnormal blood levels of liver enzymes without symptoms, 2) hepatitis (inflammation of liver cells), 3) necrosis (death of liver cells), 4) steatosis (accumulation of fat in the liver), 5) cirrhosis (advanced scarring of the liver), 6) fulminant hepatitis (severe, life-threatening liver failure), and 7) blood clots of the veins within the liver.

Patients with mild drug induced liver disease may have few or no symptoms or signs. Patients with more serious disease (such as hepatitis and necrosis) develop symptoms and signs such as fatigue, weakness, vague abdominal pain, loss of appetite, yellowing of the skin or jaundice due to the accumulation of bilirubin in the blood, itching, and easy bruising due to decreased production of blood clotting factors by the diseased liver. Patients with advanced cirrhosis can develop fluid accumulation in the legs (edema) and abdomen (ascites), mental confusion or coma, kidney failure, vulnerability to bacterial infections, and gastrointestinal bleeding.

SOURCE:
MedTerms.com. Drug-induced liver disease.

Reviewed on 2/27/2020
References
PubMedHealth.gov. Acetaminophen.
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