What are the potential health risks of paracetamol?

Published 4 Apr 2022 • By Courtney Johnson

Paracetamol is the most widely used analgesic worldwide. It is found in more than 600 different medicines, ranging from prescription to over the counter (OTC), and is an estimated 6,300 tonnes of the drug are sold per year in the UK.  

So, what is paracetamol exactly? How does it work? How and when can it pose a risk to our health? 

We explain it all in our article! 

What are the potential health risks of paracetamol?

What is paracetamol? 

Whether it’s in your medicine cabinet, the middle console in your car, or in your desk at work, chances are that you have paracetamol close at hand, in the case that a headache or joint pain strikes. Not only is paracetamol the most widely used pain reliever in the United Kingdom, it is the most used worldwide, and is also considered one of the safest. 

Paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen or APAP (N-acetyl-para-aminophenol), is a drug used to relieve mild to moderate pain and reduce fever. It is an ingredient in over 600 prescription and OTC medications, such as Anadin®, Co-Codamol®, Solpadeine®, and Night Nurse®

Because of its dual action, it can be used to treat many ailments, including headache, muscle pain, backache, toothache, menstrual cramps, cold, sore throat, and arthritis. 

How does paracetamol work? 

Paracetamol’s exact mechanism of action is still not fully understood. 

Paracetamol belongs to a class of painkillers called non-opioid analgesics, which includes aspirin, traditional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen, and the newer COX-2 inhibitors like celecoxib (Celebrex®). 

Non-opioid analgesics function by blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). COX acts as a trigger for the conversion of a fatty acid contained in cell walls (arachidonic acid) into substances known as prostaglandins. Prostaglandins have many roles in the human body, but they can also cause inflammation, pain, and fever. The pain and inflammation they cause occurs after cell injury, primarily at the site of the injury in the peripheral nervous system (outside the brain and spinal cord) and in the central nervous system. They also elevate body temperature, therefore creating fever, by impacting the heat regulating centre of the hypothalamus in the brain. 

By inhibiting COX and the production of prostaglandins, non-opioid analgesics reduce both inflammation and fever. Paracetamol, though, is different from other non-opioid analgesics in that it does not block COX in the peripheral nervous system to a significant extent. It seems to reduce pain by inhibiting a form of COX called COX-3, though more research is needed to understand this process. 

The bottom line: While paracetamol does a great job easing minor aches and pains such as headache and fever, it cannot reduce swelling or inflammation.

Which medicines contain paracetamol? 

As mentioned previously, paracetamol is the most common analgesic in the United Kingdom and is present in over 600 medications, available both on prescription and over the counter. 

Over-the-counter medications containing paracetamol*: 

Prescription medicines containing paracetamol*: 

  • Co-codamol®, Codipar® (paracetamol + codeine), high strength
  • Endocet® 
  • Fioricet® 
  • Hydrocet® 
  • Hydrocodone Bitartrate® 
  • Lortab® 
  • Percocet® 
  • Phenaphen® 
  • Ultracet® 
  • Vicodin® 
  • Zydone® 
  • ***And generic medicines 

*Neither of these lists is exhaustive, make sure to check your prescription and OTC drug labels and/or consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking. 

What are the side effects or other risks caused by paracetamol? 

When used properly with the recommended doses, paracetamol is viewed as one of the safest OTC medications. Unlike other NSAIDs, it does not irritate the stomach or intestinal lining or increase risk of heart problems, making it a good alternative for people who cannot tolerate NSAIDs. 

But, as with all medications, certain side effects and risks are still possible. 

Though uncommon, side effects of paracetamol may include: 

  • Headache 
  • Nausea 
  • Stomach pain 
  • Rash 

Occasionally, it may cause more serious side effects, such as severe allergic or skin reactions. Large doses of paracetamol can provoke stomach cramps and nausea in first instance, and as physical conditions deteriorate, it can cause liver injury, failure, and even death. 

Liver damage 

Liver damage is the most serious side effect of paracetamol use and can be fatal. It can occur when a person exceeds the maximum daily dose of 4,000 mg (the maximum dosage is 60 mg/kg/day, divided into 4 or 6 doses, i.e. approximately 15 mg/kg every 6 hours) but has also been known to occur in certain patients at lower doses. It can happen after one, very large dose of the drug, or after higher-than-recommended doses every day for several days. 

When we take paracetamol most of the drug is metabolized by the liver and excreted through urination. However, some of the drug is also converted into a toxic by-product that can harm liver cells. Taking too much paracetamol raises the risk of liver damage, and in severe cases, can lead to death. 

Because paracetamol is a common ingredient in such a broad range of prescription and OTC drugs, it can unfortunately be rather easy to accidentally take too much, especially if you’re taking more than one paracetamol-containing medicine at once. 

Signs of liver damage can include: 

  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice) 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen 
  • Fatigue 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Pale skin 
  • Unusual bleeding or bruising 
  • Changes in the colour of urine or stool 

If you suspect you’ve taken too much paracetamol or notice any symptoms, seek medical help immediately. If you know you’ve taken more than the recommended dose, go to your nearest emergency care centre, even if you don’t have any symptoms of liver damage. 

How to prevent overuse or overdose of paracetamol? 

If you ever have concerns about how much paracetamol your body can tolerate based on your age, body size, and health status, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or pharmacist. 

Here are a few helpful tips for avoiding an accidental overdose:

  • Track what you take, including over the counter remedies: When you reach for an over-the-counter headache, cold, or flue product, don’t forget to check the label. Does it contain paracetamol? Note that on prescription drug labels, paracetamol is sometimes listed as “APAP,” “acetam,” or other shortened forms of the word. 
  • Know the milligram doses of your pills: In paracetamol-containing products available over the counter, pills may contain 325, 500, or 650 milligrams of the drug. Be aware of what you’re taking and make sure to calculate how much you’re taking in a 24-hour period. Take extra caution with 500 or 650 mg pills. 
  • Follow the recommended dosage guidelines: When taking paracetamol don’t be tempted to take more than is recommended to get an extra effect. It is recommended that small-bodied people stay on the low end of the recommended range (3,000 mg per 24-hour period). 
  • Go easy on the alcohol: Consuming alcohol causes the liver to metabolize more of the paracetamol you take into toxic by-products. Men should not drink more than two standard drinks per day when taking paracetamol and women should not have more than one standard drink. 
  • Know if your medications can interact: Make sure to be aware of your prescription medications and ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of them could interact with paracetamol. 

Was this article helpful to you?  
Give it a like and share your thoughts and questions with the community in the comments below!  
Take care! 

avatar Courtney Johnson

Author: Courtney Johnson, Health Writer

Courtney is a content creator at Carenity and focuses on writing health articles. She is particularly passionate about exploring the topics of nutrition, well-being, and psychology.

Courtney holds a double... >> Learn more

Who reviewed it: Charlotte Avril, Pharmacist, Data Scientist

Charlotte holds a PharmD and a master's degree in Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Management from ESCP Business School in Paris. She has a strong interest in e-health, health tech, rare diseases and... >> Learn more


robjmckinney • Ambassador
on 09/04/2022

Horses for courses and I take copious amounts of Paracetamol in many forms from codeine mix, liquid and dissolvable formats. I also enjoy the delights NASIDs doubling up painkilling potential Naproxen the best as it works on all my joints as a bonus. My wife on the other hand as Asthmatic can't take NSAIDs is stuck on Paracetamol for pain killing so does not get the relief NSAIDs provide.

Never had an issue of overdosing as I can work within the two types to give some pain relief. These tend to be lightweight painkillers of course and don't work on serious pain, just go to bed and suffer!

lesmal • Ambassador
on 10/04/2022

Thank you for an informative article.

Like @robjmckinney, I practically live on Paracetamol as I find this basically kills most of the pain when required.

I get numerous headaches, and when Paracetamol does not appear to work, then I take Anadin with paracetamol and caffeine. This works well!

My doctor will not let me take Co-Codamol due to my epilepsy and Paracetamol is practically the safest for me, concerning the wide range of other medications I am on.

Ibuprofen is another one I am not allowed, and in the past I have had an allergy to it.

robjmckinney • Ambassador
on 10/04/2022


Yes Ibuprofen or NASIDs do seem to clash with so many people but I find them such a great tool. Naproxen I could not take for years because it was only available tablet form but these effervescent are just the job!

lesmal • Ambassador
on 10/04/2022


I have not heard of Naproxen but as long as they work for you, that is what counts! I am grateful also for the effervescent form of Paracetamol; somehow they seem to work better for my headaches, than the tablet form. I have also found a great capsule now (Paracetamol) which works like a bomb and clears the head quickly. I take Anadin mainly for back and neck pain and am currently having physio on my neck. This is not working at the moment, so have requested X-rays in the meantime.

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