This OTC Pain Medication Could Make You Take Dangerous Risks, Study Says

Taking this common painkiller could seriously alter your perception of risk.

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Americans tend to mindlessly pop over-the-counter pills to cure all kinds of ailments, from fevers to headaches, without really thinking about what they are putting into their bodies. One of the most commonly taken pain relievers is acetaminophen, which appears in over 600 medications—you might know it as Tylenol. It's an effective drug, but it does carry side effects, including one that has just been discovered. A recent study found that while acetaminophen helps give you relief, it is also dulling your risk perception, which could make you take more dangerous risks.

The July 2020 report published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience included multiple studies and found that across each, acetaminophen increased risk-taking behavior. In one study, 189 college students took either 1,000 mg of acetaminophen—the standard dosage, equivalent to two Extra Strength Tylenol—or a placebo. Once the drug was in the students' systems, they rated how risky they perceived various activities to be. Students who had acetaminophen in their body rated activities like bungee jumping, walking home alone at night through an unsafe part of town, embarking on a new career in your mid-30s, and skydiving as less risky than the students who took the placebo.

Tylenol on shelf in store
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Another study split 545 college students between placebo and acetaminophen pills and had them perform a standard risk-taking assessment test. The test involved students inflating a virtual balloon on the computer by clicking a button. With each click, they received virtual money, but if the balloon popped, they wouldn't get anything. At any moment, the student could stop, add the money to their virtual bank, and try their luck with the next balloon. The study found that the students who had taken acetaminophen pumped the balloon until it popped more often than those who had taken the placebo did.

"If you're risk-averse, you may pump a few times and then decide to cash out because you don't want the balloon to burst and lose your money. But for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting," co-author of the study Baldwin Way, MD, said in a statement.

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Way points out that there are dangers of reduced risk perception when it comes to COVID, since acetaminophen is currently a recommended treatment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for early COVID symptoms. "Perhaps someone with mild COVID-19 symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they're taking acetaminophen," Way suggested.

The results of these studies could manifest in various ways in real-world experiences. "With nearly 25 percent of the population in the U.S. taking acetaminophen each week, reduced risk perceptions and increased risk-taking could have important effects on society," Way said. From not putting on a seatbelt to making impulsive decisions, the effects of acetaminophen might reverberate throughout your day—without you even realizing it. And for more health hazards to be aware of, check out these 40 Habits Doctors Wish You'd Stop After 40.

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Allie Hogan
Allie Hogan is a Brooklyn based writer currently working on her first novel. Read more
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