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Painkiller ingredients confuse Americans, research suggests

May 03, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey
  • A (very small) survey of adults indicates most people don't know what's in popular over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol, Advil or Aleve.
A (very small) survey of adults indicates most people don't know what's… (Wikimedia Commons )

Many people have no idea what’s in their over-the-counter pain medication, if we’re to believe the results of a new study based on only 32 participants. And we’d just as well. Our own friends' and family members' confusion suggests they don't know either.

Researchers from Northwestern University asked 32 adults in Atlanta and Chicago to match name-brand medicine boxes with the main active ingredient. Although 75% of participants knew that Bayer’s main ingredient was aspirin, fewer than half knew what was in Tylenol, Aleve and Advil. And related focus groups with 45 adults found that few knew acetaminophen (a.k.a. Tylenol) could cause liver damage. They published the findings in the May 3 American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

The authors speculate that in particular, unintentional overdoses of acetaminophen are likely caused by misunderstanding the medication labeling, unknowingly taking more than one brand of medicine containing acetaminophen or not knowing the risk of acute liver failure. They write in their conclusion:

“With the high prevalence of OTC medication use, it is possible a large number of adults will greatly benefit from the use of simple, explicit messages and icons as a more efficient manner of identifying acetaminophen medications and their maximum dose.” 

If that’s the case, maybe a quick review of OTC brand name painkillers and their active ingredients is worthwhile (we're going to recommend it to our own friends and family):

Bayer – aspirin.

Motrin and Advil – ibuprofen.

Tylenol – acetaminophen.

Aleve - naproxen sodium.

For a closer look at painkillers, check out this package:

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