Taking Tylenol for Your Headaches

How Tylenol Works and What to Watch Out For

woman taking Tylenol for headache
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Acetaminophen is likely the most commonly used pain reliever today. It has long been touted as a safe and effective treatment for a range of pain, from teething babies to arthritis pain. It's also a common first-choice medication in the treatment of headaches, especially tension-type headaches. Acetaminophen use comes with some risk, however. So understanding proper dosing and potential hazards is important.

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

How Does Tylenol Work?

Acetaminophen 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.

How to Take Tylenol

Acetaminophen comes in a variety of forms -- tablets, capsules, gel caps, chewables, liquid, and suppositories. Be sure to take it as directed by your healthcare provider and as described on the package. It comes in many strengths, as well, so you need to be extra careful to note exactly how much you are taking. The maximum daily dose of acetaminophen is 4 g (4000 mg). Never take more than this amount in one day. 

Warnings on Tylenol Use

The biggest danger associated with acetaminophen is damage to the liver due to overuse or overdose.

It's removed from the bloodstream by the liver, and too much acetaminophen can overwhelm the liver and cause major damage. This is also why it's advised that patients not drink alcohol while taking acetaminophen -- to avoid further harm to the liver. 

Many minor side effects may be caused by acetaminophen, but the most dangerous side effects include rash, hives, itching, swelling of the body, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing or swallowing.

These could all be signs of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Be sure to discuss any changes in your health after taking acetaminophen for the first time.

Acetaminophen is also included in many over-the-counter and prescription medications. Many cough and cold preparations include it as do many opioid pain relievers. In fact, in 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  limited the amount of acetaminophen in combination prescription medications to 325mg in order to protect patients. That being said, be sure to confirm with your prescriber exactly how much acetaminophen you will be taking if you taking are one of these combination products. 

Bottom Line

While Tylenol is generally a sensible 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

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.



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

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

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.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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