Overdosing on acetaminophen is the number-one cause of liver failures in the U.S. today. Surveys show a quarter of Americans take more than the recommended amount of pain pills than they should. The government is taking steps to restrict dosing, but local liver transplant specialists say that's not enough.
At UCLA's liver transplantation program, surgeons have transplanted more than 300 patients due to acetaminophen acute liver failure.
"And that's a significant number of patients undergoing transplantation for a single drug toxicity," said Dr. Ronald Busuttil, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Two-thirds of them are adults. A third are children. Busuttil, chief of UCLA's liver transplant service, says when you consume too much, it clogs of the blood vessels of the liver, resulting in cell death.
"And then when the liver cells die, the patients get jaundiced, their blood does not clot, they get what we call hepatic encephalopathy, they can't think, they can't converse, they can go into a coma, and that's because of liver failure," said Busuttil.
Last week, U.S. health regulators recommended doctors stop prescribing drugs that contain more than 325 milligrams of acetaminophen, but the guideline doesn't cover over-the-counter meds.
Americans should not exceed more than 4,000 milligrams a day, which is equal to eight Tylenol pills, but people exceed the daily amount because they're unaware other combination therapies such as NyQuil, Excedrin, Sudafed, Robitussin and Benadryl also contain acetaminophen.
"And I think it not only should be restricted to prescription medications, which I think is a great accomplishment that has happened, but it should also apply to over-the-counter medications," said Busuttil.
The FDA says consumers should not take more than the prescribed dose of any medication that contains acetaminophen. And you should not take more than one acetaminophen product at a time.
Drinking alcohol while taking these medications also puts you at added risk.