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Survey: U.S. unclear on over-the-counter meds

May 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
When it comes to over-the-counter pain relievers, a new study finds the public is confused about what's in them. Doctors fear this confusion may be why we're seeing more cases of liver failure.

Pain reliever overdose has become the leading cause of acute liver failure in the U.S.

Do you know the difference between Aleve, Advil, Motrin and Tylenol? A new survey says most people don't. Because of this, many may be taking in the same ingredient in multiple medications at the same time.

People take billions of doses of over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol every year, but many don't pay attention to the active ingredients they contain.

According to the survey, a lot of people don't know that acetaminophen is the key ingredient in Tylenol. And a lot of people don't know that ibuprofen is in both Advil and Motrin.

Internal medicine expert Dr. John de Beixedon says his patients get mixed up all the time. So he's not surprised by an alarming report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

About 70 percent of people surveyed did not know Tylenol contained acetaminophen. More than 50 percent didn't know Motrin had ibuprofen; 80 percent did not know Aleve's active ingredient is naproxen. And 25 percent didn't know Bayer contained aspirin.

"They all think they're the same thing, when they're really not," said de Beixedon. "They have different actions and different risks."

For example, experts say if you've had a drink or two, you should avoid acetaminophen. De Beixedon says people may unintentionally misuse over-the-counter pain relievers to a point where they cause severe damage.

"If you add two ibuprofen products, one on top of each other, or you increase the doses, then you run the risk of kidney damage, liver damage, and of course gastric ulcers," said de Beixedon.

Study authors say using a universal symbol on labels for acetaminophen may stop the confusion, but experts say it's always a good idea for Americans to get educated.

"When using over-the-counter medications, the best thing is to be cautious," said de Beixedon. "If you don't know what something is or what you should use, ask the pharmacist or ask your doctor."

The study found only 41 percent of participants read the ingredients on drug labels. De Beixedon adds: Do not give aspirin to anyone under the age of 14. The concern is over a potentially deadly syndrome that causes organ failure.