Does Tylenol Make You Take More Risks?

Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and about 600 other medicines, can make you engage in more risky behavior and blunts both positive and negative emotions, a new study reports.
By on 09/09/2020 10:30 AM

Source: MedicineNet Health News

Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and about 600 other medicines can make you engage in more risky behavior and blunts both positive and negative emotions, a new study reports.

The study more or less confirms past research suggesting the common painkiller (analgesic) and fever reducer blunts the affect of people taking it, according to the study published this summer in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“Affect” is a medical term for a person’s emotional tone projected to others, according to MedicineNet’s MedTerms medical dictionary. “Blunt affect” specifically means a reduction of animation and emotional reactivity in interactions with others. “Flat affect,” for example, is more severe than blunt affect, and describes a sort of emotionless poker face seen in some schizophrenic people when they are catatonic.

Baldwin Way, an Ohio State University psychology professor and study co-author, spoke with ScienceDaily about the paper. Because about 23 percent of U.S. adults take acetaminophen regularly, even a small, marginal increase in risky behavior and reduction in empathy is concerning.

“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities -- they just don't feel as scared,” Way said. "Perhaps someone with mild COVID-19 symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they're taking acetaminophen."

The study set up healthy young adults with a simple computer game that let them earn money while inflating a balloon. Each pump of air deposited small amounts of money in an account for them with each push of a button. If the balloon remained intact, they got to keep the money and move onto the next balloon to do the same thing, according to the text of the study.

But if a balloon popped, volunteers lost all the money they had earned from pumping that balloon thus far, the study states.

Acetaminophen made volunteers push more virtual balloons to destruction, risking and losing their earned pot of money much more often than the placebo group. Across all three double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (involving a total of 545 volunteers), acetaminophen increased risk-taking behavior, the study states.

This is just Way’s latest research project on this phenomenon, according to ScienceDaily.

“Previous research by Way and his colleagues has shown that acetaminophen reduces positive and negative emotions, including hurt feelings, distress over another's suffering and even your own joy.”

What Is Acetaminophen and How Does It Work?

Acetaminophen, approved in 1951 by the US Food and Drug Administration, is in a class of analgesic and antipyretic (fever-reducing) drugs.

“The exact mechanism of action of acetaminophen is not known,” writes MedicineNet Author . “It may reduce the production of prostaglandins in the brain. Prostaglandins are chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling. Acetaminophen relieves pain by elevating the pain threshold, that is, by requiring a greater amount of pain to develop before a person feels it.”

Way’s research -- in total, not only this latest study -- seems to suggest this pain threshold elevation also extends to emotional pain like fear of failure, hurt feelings, anger, joy, and empathy.

Acetaminophen is used for the relief of fever as well as aches and pains associated with many conditions, Dr. Ogbru said. Acetaminophen relieves pain in mild arthritis but has no effect on the underlying inflammation, redness, and swelling of the joint. If the pain is not due to inflammation, acetaminophen is as effective as aspirin.

Acetaminophen is as effective as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen (Motrin) in relieving the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee. Unless directed by a physician, acetaminophen should not be used for longer than 10 days, Dr. Ogbru said.

Acetaminophen is also an ingredient in many other drugs and is used generally for numerous conditions that cause pain and fever as symptoms, both acute (like a tension headache, ankle sprain or the flu) and chronic (like knee arthritis).

What Are the Physical Side Effects of Acetaminophen?

When used appropriately, side effects with acetaminophen are not common, Dr. Ogbru said.

The most common side effects are rash, nausea, and headache.

Other important side effects include:

  • Hypersensitivity reactions
  • Serious skin reactions
  • Kidney damage
  • Anemia
  • Reduced number of platelets in the blood (thrombocytopenia)

Chronic alcohol use may also increase the risk of stomach bleeding, Dr. Ogbru said.

The most serious potential side effect is liver damage due to large doses, chronic use or concomitant use with alcohol or other drugs that also damage the liver, Dr. Ogbru said.

Other serious side effects that have been reported include bleeding in the intestines and stomach, angioedema, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, and kidney damage. A reduction in the number of white blood cells has also been reported, according to Dr. Ogbru.

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