Paracetamol products are suitable for most people including the elderly and young children. Interactions with other treatments are not a problem, and they can generally be taken by people who are sensitive to aspirin. Paracetamol is well tolerated by people with peptic ulcers and in general those who suffer from asthma.
Liquid paracetamol products are particularly suitable for children, and can be given to babies to treat the raised temperature that may follow immunisation. For treating other conditions in children under three months old a doctor's advice should be sought.
Paracetamol products can normally be used during pregnancy although it is always wise to ask your doctor about taking any medicines at this time, and mothers who are breast feeding may use paracetamol products.
Because of their effectiveness and lack of side-effects paracetamol products are frequently prescribed in hospitals and are the treatment of choice for relieving mild to moderate pain in specialist liver units.
Who can take paracetamol?
Paracetamol is one of the most widely-used medications in the world because it?s viable for most people to use. All age groups can use paracetamol: it doesn't interact negatively with other medications, nor does it prompt significant reactions or major side effects. It?s simply a tried-and-tested solution for mild to moderate pain that?s cheap, effective, and extremely safe.
The most common use for paracetamol is to alleviate a headache, but it can also reduce pain from other sources (including general aches and pains). It?s typically available over the counter in soluble tablets so sufferers can treat pain without needing permission or prescriptions. You can even get it from supermarkets alongside cold and flu remedies (albeit with purchase quantity limitations that usually restrict each customer to one pack per trip).
Paracetamol for adults
Adults (or teens over 15) who want to use paracetamol to reduce their pain can pick it up whenever they need it and use it at their discretion. It?s safe for an adult to consume up to 4g in a 24-hour period, which amounts to eight standard 500mg tablets. Consumption should be spread out, though, with at least four hours between doses and no more than 1g per dose.
If the pain is too much for the paracetamol to arrest, it?s necessary to look for a more potent pain medication rather than running the risk of using too much paracetamol. This will typically require consulting a medical professional who can provide medical advice and offer a prescription, as more potent treatments inevitably come with greater risks.
Paracetamol for kids
Children over the age of 10 can use paracetamol tablets of the same kinds that adults consume, though their lower tolerance levels mean that their dosage caps are halved. In other words, a child of 12 can take a maximum dose of 500mg at a given time, and safely consume no more than 2g (in other words, no more than four doses) in a 24-hour period.
This doesn?t mean that children under the age of 10 can?t take paracetamol. They just shouldn?t be taking full tablets. Instead, they can benefit from partial tablets or from liquid paracetamol treatments such as Calpol. There are different syrups with varying concentrations that are aimed at different age groups, so get the right concentration and read the information carefully: there should be a clear indication of how much you can give your child based on their age.
You don?t need to get approval from a medical professional to give your young child a treatment based on paracetamol, though you can certainly check if you?re unsure about what you should be doing. If your child is unusually big or small for their age, for instance, it might be worth checking if you?ve selected the most suitable dose for their likely tolerance level.
And if your child is extremely young (under a year old, for instance), you should take them to a doctor or pharmacist if they seem to be in moderate pain for an unknown reason. Babies can benefit from liquid medicine, particularly when they have high body temperature, but ensure that you get a firm diagnosis and prescription from your child?s doctor first.
Warnings and side effects
Though almost everyone can use paracetamol safely, it can still prove harmful if you don?t follow the warnings and keep up with the possible (albeit rare and usually mild) side effects.
Paracetamol with other medicines
The most common issue stemming from taking paracetamol with other medicines is an overdose of paracetamol. This is because many other pain-relief products (including over-the-counter pain treatments and even cold and flu remedies) include paracetamol as an ingredient. Mixing painkillers is rarely a good idea regardless, but if you?re going to use several painkillers (following advice from a doctor), they should have distinct ingredients.
There are other scenarios in which you can experience negative drug interactions when using paracetamol at the same time as other treatments. There are various drugs out there ? used to treat issues including (but not limited to) fungal infections, nausea, blood clots, epilepsy, seizures, and diabetes ? that can clash with paracetamol, leading to their effects becoming stronger, weaker, or even outright harmful.
Taking paracetamol with alcohol
Mixing alcohol with medical treatments is often dangerous, so it?s vital to check before taking something whether you need to abstain from drinking before, during, and/or after. The good news for paracetamol is that moderate drinking shouldn?t cause any issues with it, so if you want to take your tablet with a beer, you can probably do so quite safely.
Note, though, that drinking can impact your reasoning, focus, and memory, making it easier to forget how many tablets you?ve taken. Be extremely careful when choosing your dosage and sticking to it. Additionally, if you have medical issues pertaining to alcohol abuse, you should seek the advice of a doctor before taking paracetamol. The kind of liver injury that often stems from excess drinking can make it unsafe to consume even over-the-counter painkillers.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding
Taking medication while pregnant (or, to a lesser extent, while breastfeeding) can be extremely hazardous for the child (or children), which is why a key question for every treatment is whether it?s safe to use while pregnant. Thankfully, paracetamol is considered across the board to be safe for use while pregnant or breastfeeding. The doses should be kept as low and infrequent as possible, just in case, but there isn?t usually any reason to be concerned.
Breast milk can carry over traces of medication, and that?s true of paracetamol, but it?s safe for infants to use and won?t cause any harm in babies ? particularly in such fractional quantities. You should still check with a doctor or pharmacist before using pain medication while pregnant or breastfeeding, though, just in case there?s some reason you?ve missed why it?s a bad idea.
Note that some painkillers often viewed alongside paracetamol (those of the anti-inflammatory variety, such as aspirin or ibuprofen) have been associated with elevated risk of miscarriage when active during conception or during pregnancy. Paracetamol works differently, though, and no such negative association has been observed.
In rare cases, paracetamol can give rise to side effects. Outside of overdosing, there are only really two that you should look out for, and neither is particularly common:
A racing heartbeat with low blood pressure. If you receive a paracetamol injection in an arm vein while in hospital care, this is a slim possibility.
An allergic reaction. Paracetamol allergies are extremely unusual, but if you do happen to suffer an allergic reaction, you?ll likely develop a rash and experience swelling.
How and when to take paracetamol
Taking paracetamol is generally simpler than many other medicines. The tablets you pick up will have clear instructions about dosage and use. If you?re an adult, you?ll have the option of taking a single dose or a double dose: it depends on how much pain you?re feeling (or how much pain you expect to feel if you?re taking medication in advance).
Paracetamol is most effective for treating mild to moderate pain, so take one tablet for mild pain or two for moderate pain. Alternatively, if you know how well you respond to it, just take whatever your usual dose is. If you?re suffering from severe pain, paracetamol won?t be able to do more than take the edge off. Look for a more impactful treatment.
Most people take paracetamol tablets with drinks to help them go down. You can take your dose with food or without it. Having an empty stomach might cause more irritation, but it shouldn?t be too much of a problem either way. How quickly it takes effect will depend on your system, but you should notice a difference within an hour ? the effect should then last for up to five hours.
Keep in mind that a missed dose doesn?t give you complete freedom to make the next dose bigger. If you were intending to take one tablet then take another later, you can take two later ? but if you were intending to take two tablets and another two later, you can?t take four later. Stick to the recommended dosage limits.
What if I accidentally take too much?
If you unintentionally take too much paracetamol, you should seek medical assistance as soon as possible. If you?ve gone over your recommended dose by a small amount, you may experience no significant issues, but it?s still worth checking. If you?ve overdosed by a large amount, you?re in serious danger and should call an ambulance immediately.
If you think there?s a possibility that you?ve overdosed but you?re unsure (maybe you mixed up tablets or simply forgot what you consumed), look out for symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, appetite loss, weakness, or excess sweating. If you?re at all concerned, seek help.
Different types of paracetamol
Paracetamol is available in the following forms to suit different needs:
Tablets or capsules. These are usually sold in 500mg or 1000mg doses.
Soluble tablets. Good for people who struggle to swallow regular tablets, these can be dissolved in water to make them easier to consume.
Liquid. Liquid paracetamol treatments (usually flavoured) are great for kids.
Suppositories or injections. In hospital settings, isn?t it always viable to have someone swallow a paracetamol treatment, so suppositories and injections are good alternatives.
How to store paracetamol
You don?t need to do anything special to protect paracetamol. Simply keep it dry and at a moderate temperature: having a dedicated medicine cupboard is always a good idea. Also, though it?s safe for kids to use, you shouldn?t leave it where kids can get to it. If they need it, you should get it for them and ensure that they get appropriate amounts.
NHS: paracetamol for adults
NHS: paracetamol for children
Heavy paracetamol use in late pregnancy and wheezing in children
Facts about paracetamol
Health writers' information on paracetamol
Patients with heart disease must use the right pain reliever
Aspirin therapy for preventing deep vein thrombosis blocked by ibuprofen pain relievers
Information for journalists reporting on paracetamol overdoses or on inquests involving paracetamol
Legislation restricting pack sizes of pain relievers has been successful in reducing overdoses
The origins of myths about paracetamol safety
History of paracetamol
Paracetamol in overdose
Paracetamol - metabolism, biochemistry of overdose and its treatment
Notes on paracetamol/methionine tablets
Paracetamol in paediatric suspension
Paracetamol manufacture review
The labelling of medicines containing paracetamol
Guidelines for the management of acute paracetamol overdosage
Paracetamol Information Centre
Specialised subjects of interest: useful abstracts
Is it alright to take paracetamol every day?
It?s perfectly safe to use paracetamol on a daily basis provided you don?t exceed the recommended dosage amount and frequency. It?s possible to build up a tolerance that reduces its efficacy, but it?s fairly unlikely, and reducing your use of the drug should lower that tolerance again if that situation ever arose.
Should I use paracetamol or another painkiller?
You may be looking at treatments like aspirin and ibuprofen and wondering whether paracetamol is your best option. It depends on the nature of the pain you?re experiencing and how you respond to different treatments. Some people have better results with one or another. Treatments like ibuprofen have anti-inflammatory properties, so you should lean towards those if you suffer swelling. Paracetamol is generally used to treat headaches.