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Cold and Flu Season: Acetaminophen Safe Use Steps

Magnifying glass over a bottle of medication helping to see the drug facts

This cold and flu season, nurse practitioners (NPs) should encourage patients to take safety precautions when using medicines that contain acetaminophen.

This 2020 cold and flu season, it will be more important than ever to make sure your patients know how to treat their fever and pain symptoms safely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that influenza symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms are similar — including cough, fever or chills, muscle or body aches, sore throat, myalgia or fatigue and headache — so it may be difficult to determine a proper diagnosis without testing to confirm.

As primary care and specialty care providers, NPs should be on especially high alert for potential dosing mistakes concerning medications that contain acetaminophen. Seven in 10 people will use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to treat their cold and flu symptoms, and many of those medications contain acetaminophen. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA),

Acetaminophen is an active ingredient found in more than 600 OTC and prescription medicines, including pain relievers, cough suppressants and cold medications.”

That said, a series of studies has shown that consumers do not always realize that taking two medications with the same ingredient can be harmful. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by the U.S. Pain Foundation with support from McNeil Consumer Healthcare, 45% of consumers reportedly do not consider prescription medications and 65% do not consider other OTC medicines they’re taking when choosing an OTC pain reliever.

With these important safety factors going unconsidered, now is the time to remind your patients that many fever reducers and multi-symptom cold and flu medicines contain acetaminophen. Patients who take medicines with acetaminophen for everyday pain relief may not realize that they risk accidentally doubling their dose by taking certain cold and flu medicines. Make sure your patients know that the FDA has set a maximum daily dose of 4,000 milligrams of acetaminophen within one 24-hour period — and taking more than directed can lead to liver damage.

NPs: Keep Your Patients Safe With Acetaminophen Usage Tips

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners® (AANP) is a proud partner of the Know Your Dose campaign, which offers safe usage tips that will help your patients use medicines with acetaminophen safely:

  • Always read and follow the label.
  • Know if your medicines contain acetaminophen.
  • Take only one medicine at a time that contains acetaminophen. Double check, don’t double up!
  • Ask your health care provider or a pharmacist if you have questions about dosing instructions or medicines that contain acetaminophen.

Know Your Dose also offers free educational materials on the safe use of acetaminophen for your practice or community, available for download or to order for free.