Atlantic Columnist: Acetaminophen Reduces “Existential Distress,” But What Other Side Effects Do We Still Not Know About?

Tylenol, the brand name of a compound called acetaminophen, is used widely as an over-the-counter consumers to control pain and reduce fever. Acetaminophen is a powerful pain reliever and anti-inflammatory medication and is often mixed with other pain-killing compounds such as Percocet or Vicodin to increase the pain-relieving capacity of these drugs. But recent research indicates that the household drug might have unexpected side effects. In an April 2013 article in The Atlantic, columnist James Hamblin recaps the well-known physical risks of acetaminophen, as well as surprising new research into the drugs effects on human cognitive and emotional processes and decision-making.

Physical Effects

Chronic use of acetaminophen can cause acute live failure. More than 4,000 milligrams per day could prompt liver problems. The recommended adult dosage of acetaminophen is 650 to 1,000 milligrams taken every 4 to 6 hours as needed. However, because acetaminophen is often found in combination with other pain relievers, you should monitor your intake carefully. Other effects such as nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, irritability, seizures, and death can also occur.

How Tylenol Affects Our Mental State

A study on the mental effects of acetaminophen also provided intriguing results. Researchers found the drug, like alcohol, seemed to blunt “existential distress” and the pain of social rejection. Study participants reacted less strongly to the rejection than their control group counterparts. In his article, Hamblin notes that the study also found that the participants that took acetaminophen also chose less harsh punishments for people who engaged in illegal activity. Though the volunteers were not able to notice any change in their mental state, it clearly had a lifting effect on their negative feelings.

Understanding the Consequences

Hamblin argues that if acetaminophen can affect the mental state without any outward evidence or internal sense of behaving “differently,” the drug may affect peoples’ decisions in their everyday lives. They may have no idea of their reduced capacity or why they choose as they do.

Has the Use of Acetaminophen Affected You?

Hamblin notes that the results of the study pose the question: How much is the widespread use of acetaminophen affecting reactions and behavior in peoples’ daily lives? It is possible that this common drug is routinely causing changes in decision-making capability, though people are not aware of it. Hamblin concludes that further research is needed to fully understand how this ubiquitous (physical and social) painkiller is affecting our everyday lives.