May 25, 2012 — A study has found that about 2.5% of hospital patients are given unsafe amounts of Tylenol (acetaminophen) on at least one day during their hospital stay. The researchers were concerned that the administration of multiple medications containing acetaminophen was one major risk factor. Despite the fact that thousands of people are likely overdosed every year, hospital staff were largely under-estimating the severity of the problem.
The study, led by Dr. Jesse Civan, analyzed data on 46,000 people who were admitted to the hospital. The researchers tracked what medications the people were given during their hospital stay. On at least one day, they found that that roughly 1,100 patients were given more than 4,000-mg of acetaminophen, usually in the form of Tylenol, Percocet, or other acetaminophen-containing drugs. The combination of multiple drugs containing acetaminophen is one of the leading causes of drug overdoses.
Despite the fact that small overdoses of Tylenol were common, only a small number of patients had a blood test to check liver function. Doctors typically only asked for a blood test when there was reason to be concerned about the function of the patient’s liver. The study suggests that Tylenol overdoses are an under-recognized problem in hospitals.
Fortunately, during the duration of the study, there were no serious liver injuries caused by a Tylenol overdose. They also did not collect enough information to determine if a Tylenol overdose affected test results.
Even so, studies have found that small overdoses of acetaminophen can severely harm a person’s liver. The problem is usually seen in people who use Tylenol frequently to treat chronic pain, and exceed the maximum daily dosage once in a while. These small overdoses, staggered over time, are actually associated with more severe liver damage and worse prognosis than for people who accidentally overdose once and go to the hospital.
The researchers recommended that patients and their caregivers need better education regarding Tylenol safety, especially after they leave the hospital. If the patient duplicates the excessively high level of Tylenol at home, he or she is at risk of suffering small, staggered overdoses.