Taking Tylenol for Your Headaches

How Tylenol Works and What to Watch Out For

woman taking Tylenol for headache
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Tylenol (acetaminophen) is likely the most commonly used pain reliever today and has long been touted as a safe and effective treatment for a range of pain, from teething babies to arthritis pain. Not surprisingly, Tylenol is also a common first-choice medication in the treatment of headaches, especially tension-type headaches.

That said, Tylenol use comes with some risk. So understanding proper dosing and potential hazards is important.

As always, discuss any medication uses or changes with your healthcare provider.

Mechanism of Tylenol

Tylenol is effective at reducing pain (analgesic) and fever (antipyretic). While we are not sure exactly how it works in the body, it probably interacts with prostaglandins. These are chemicals in the body that, among other things, cause inflammation and pain.

It's worthy to note that while Tylenol is used to ease tension-type headaches, it may also be used to treat mild to moderate migraines—although the research on its effectiveness is not as robust as using NSAIDs (for example, ibuprofen). More often, a combination pain reliever like Excedrin migraine (acetaminophen, aspirin, caffeine) is used to abort a migraine headache, rather than Tylenol alone.

How to Take Tylenol

An appealing and convenient part of taking Tylenol is that this over-the-counter medication comes in a variety of forms including tablets, capsules, gel caps, chewables, liquid, and suppositories.

With that, though, be sure to take it as directed by your healthcare provider and as described on the package. This is because Tylenol comes in many strengths, so you need to be extra careful to know exactly how much you are taking.

More specifically, the maximum daily dose of Tylenol is 4 g (4000 mg)—it's critical to never take more than this amount in one day.

Warnings on Tylenol Use

Tylenol is typically a safe and very well-tolerated pain medication, but like all medications, there are things to watch out for, which is why it's important to stick with your doctor's guidance.

The biggest danger associated with Tylenol is damage to the liver due to overuse or overdose. This may occur because Tylenol is normally removed from the bloodstream by the liver. So too much Tylenol can overwhelm the liver and cause major damage, even liver failure. This is also why it's advised that people not drink alcohol while taking Tylenol, which can place additional stress on the liver.

There are a number of minor side effects linked to Tylenol use, but the most dangerous side effects include rash, hives, itching, swelling of the body, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing or swallowing. These symptoms and signs could all be signs of a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Of course, whether you are taking Tylenol for the first time or not, be sure to discuss any changes in your health with its use.

It's also very important to note that Tylenol is included in many over-the-counter and prescription medications like cough and cold preparations and opioid pain relievers.

In other words, the dosage of your Tylenol can add up. This is why, in 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limited the amount of Tylenol in combination prescription medications to 325mg in order to protect patients.

In order to prevent yourself from taking too much Tylenol, be sure to confirm with your prescriber exactly how much Tylenol you will be consuming, if you are taking is one of these combination products.

A Word From Verywell

While Tylenol is generally a sensible and effective option for tension headache relief, be cautious about how much Tylenol or any other headache medication you are taking over time.

Chronic use of headache medications can lead to medication overuse headaches, which are rebound or withdrawal headaches that occur as a result of taking an abortive headache medication too much (usually more than 10 to 15 days per month).

On a final note, it's also a good idea to think about what triggered your headache in the first place, like sleep deprivation or hunger. Eating a healthy snack or getting some shut-eye can be incredibly refreshing and may even alleviate that nagging headache without having to take any medication. 

Sources:

Ault, Alicia. “Indeterminate liver failure Is often due to acetaminophen.” Family Practice News. August 1, 2008.

Gilmore B, Michael M. Treatment of acute migraine headache. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Feb 1;83(3):271-80.

Prior MJ, Codispoti JR, Fu M. A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of acetaminophen for treatment of migraine headache. Headache. 2010 May;50(5):819-33.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA safety communication: Prescription acetaminophen products to be limited to 325 mg per dosage unit; boxed warning will highlight potential for severe liver failure.

U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Acetaminophen

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