Paracetamol – too easily accessible?

Pain killers1A report in the media recently discussed the banning of large packs of Panadol being sold at the supermarkets due to the dangers of adverse events and overdoses associated with the widely-available drug.

Australia is not the only country to undergo this revision. In the US, Tylenol manufacturers (which is paracetamol – or acetaminophen), have also had to apply extra warning labels and a recommended decrease in adult dosage from 4000mg to 3000mg after an increase in reported overdoses and symptoms of toxicity.[1] In the UK, they have reduced the current dosages for children.

So why all the fuss? Paracetamol has been available for many years, but there has been a steady increase in the misuse of over the counter drugs, causing health professionals a great deal of concern. Paracetamol, in particular, is very easy to overdose on and just a small increase in the recommended dose can cause serious liver damage and death. In some individuals, even taking the recommended dose is enough to cause harm.

Paracetamol is so dangerous because, like many over the counter medications, it is easily accessible to everyone, and is perceived as a ‘harmless pain-killer’. This could not be further from the truth. In Australia, Panadol is the number one cause of hepatic (liver) failure and the single most commonly taken drug taken in overdoses that lead to hospital admission. [2]Left untreated, victims can die within days. The effects of liver failure following overdose usually begin to show a few hours after digestion; nausea, vomiting, sweating and pain as acute liver failure begins.

It is not just adults that are at risk. Children can also be affected. One case in particular involved two girls, aged 3 & 4, who experienced acute liver failure due to an accidental overdose of paracetamol. [3]

We have become a society that too often reaches for the medicine cabinet to treat whatever symptom is bothering us most at the time. Clearly, this habit is not only making us blind to what is causing our pain in the first place, but creating dangerous, toxic events that may well prove to be life threatening.


[1] Dunlevy. S, SUPERMARKETS will be banned from selling large packs of the pain killer paracetamol in a crackdown by the medicines safety watchdog.Herald Sun, August 27th 2013.

[2] Daly, F.S, Guidelines for the management of paracetamol poisoning in Australia and New Zealand — explanation and elaboration. Med J Aust 2008; 188 (5): 296-302

[3] Hamelleers – Snijders. P.D, Risk of acute hepatic insufficiency in children due to chronic accidental overdose of paracetamol. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2007 Apr 2.