Friday, April 20, 2018

Health Tip: How Safe Is Acetaminophen (Tylenol)?

A patient recently told me that he had heard that Tylenol (acetaminophen) can damage the liver. He wondered if it was safe to use it, and how much was appropriate to take. Interestingly, acetaminophen is the most popular drug in America. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association notes:

Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States. It's found in more than 600 different medicines, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, fever reducers, and sleep aids as well as cough, cold, and allergy medicines. Each week, approximately 23 percent of U.S. adults — or 52 million consumers — use an acetaminophen-containing medicine.

So this is an important question, affecting 25% of American adults each week!

How does acetaminophen damage the liver?
After acetaminophen is digested in the stomach it is absorbed into the bloodstream and is broken down in the liver and eventually removed in the urine and feces. Enzymes in the liver "chop up" the acetaminophen into smaller compounds, 90% of which are harmless substances, but 10% require conversion into a water-soluble product that can be added to bile and removed in feces. If that 10%, consisting of a toxic compound called N-acetyl-p-benzoquinoeimine (NAPQI), is not successfully neutralized with a substance called gluthathione, it can cause harm to the nearby liver cells. Healthy livers have no problem neutralizing the NAPQI, especially in small amounts. But sick livers are at not as functional, and the toxin can build up, causing further damage to an already dysfunctional organ.

Therefore, people with liver disease (caused by hepatitis viruses, fatty liver, or alcoholic cirrhosis among others) should not take acetaminophen.

Alcohol interferes with the gene that makes the natural, acetaminophen-neutralizing gluthathione, so it is not recommended to drink more than 2 servings of alcohol per day when taking acetaminophen.

So how much acetaminophen is safe?
So long as you don't have liver disease, and do not drink alcohol with acetaminophen, the maximum recommended daily dose is 4 grams for adults and 3 grams for adults over 65. As we age, our ability to process acetaminophen decreases, so we need to adjust our dosing accordingly. Research suggests that taking 7g or more per day is likely to result in liver damage.

Advice to avoid overdosing:
  1. Since acetaminophen is included in over 600 different medicines, make sure you don't get a double dose of it by accident, especially if you're taking multiple meds. Read the drug facts labels on your medicine bottles and follow the dosing instructions carefully. "Acetaminophen" may be listed as APAP, AC, Paracetamol, Acetam, or another abbreviation.
  2. To be safe, I personally would recommend that you not drink alcohol on the same day you use acetaminophen.
  3. Use the "minimal effective dose" of acetaminophen. If you get relief from 500mg tablets, don't take the 650mg ones, for example.
What are the signs of liver damage?
The early symptoms of severe liver damage are often vague and include loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting, and can be mistaken for the flu. More serious symptoms usually begin a few days after an overdose and include abdominal pain, convulsions, diarrhea, irritability, jaundice, and coma. Symptoms of liver failure are a medical emergency and should be evaluated by a physician.

Tylenol is an effective pain and fever reducer, but is safe in a fairly narrow dosing range. Too much of it can overwhelm the liver's toxin-neutralizing capacities, and result in injury to the organ before it can be removed from the body. Liver damage can be life-threatening, so acetaminophen should be taken at its minimal effective dose. In short, I like what Harvard Health says about acetaminophen: "be cautious but not afraid."


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Monday, April 16, 2018

Fevers: When Should I Be Concerned?

The idea of checking our temperature when we are sick is deeply ingrained in most Americans. Elevated body temperature most commonly occurs when the immune system is actively fighting off an infection (bacterial, viral, or fungal). However, fevers can occur with alcohol withdrawal, drug abuse (such as methamphetamines), or heat stroke from being exposed to high environmental temperatures. There are natural body temperature fluctuations as well (“normal” body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus 1 degree). Our body temperature is lowest in the mornings and highest in the afternoons.

It’s important to keep in mind that temperature can vary depending on how it’s measured. Rectal (internal) temperature tends to be higher than skin (surface) temperature. Oral and armpit temperatures can approximate actual body temperature and are more convenient to measure.

When an infection occurs, our body’s “thermostat” (located in the brain, known as the hypothalamus) increases body temperature. This is a natural response that may reduce the speed of viral and bacterial replication. Certain infectious agents are quite temperature-sensitive, and so having a fever can help defend the body against disease progression.

The truth is that for adults, a temperature up to 103 degrees F is not generally a concern unless it is accompanied by any of these symptoms (they could indicate an infection that requires immediate medical attention):
  • Severe headache
  • Unusual skin rash, especially if the rash rapidly worsens
  • Unusual sensitivity to bright light
  • Stiff neck and pain when you bend your head forward
  • Mental confusion
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • Abdominal pain or pain when urinating
  • Convulsions or seizures
For babies and children, fevers are concerning because they are more vulnerable to infections and not as experienced at fighting them off.

The Mayo Clinic recommends reporting fevers to the physician in infants and babies under these conditions:
  • Younger than age 3 months and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher.
  • Between ages 3 and 6 months and has a rectal temperature up to 102 F (38.9 C) and seems unusually irritable, lethargic or uncomfortable or has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C).
  • Between ages 6 and 24 months and has a rectal temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C) that lasts longer than one day but shows no other symptoms. If your child also has other signs and symptoms, such as a cold, cough or diarrhea, you might call your child's doctor sooner based on severity.
  • There's probably no cause for alarm if your child has a fever but is responsive — making eye contact with you and responding to your facial expressions and to your voice — and is drinking fluids and playing.
The bottom line is that fevers are a natural and healthy response to infection. Fevers are generally not dangerous in-and-of-themselves under 103 F. Anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen and naproxen) and acetaminophen can reduce body temperature for comfort purposes. Contact your doctor if there is any concern about a high fever with the symptoms listed above, or in infants and young children. But for low-grade fevers, perhaps it’s best to be comforted in the knowledge that your immune system is doing its job, and that higher temperatures may actually help with the fight.


Monday, April 9, 2018

Springtime: When Plants and Allergies Come Back to Life

Allergies develop when the immune system overreacts to substances in the environment, such as the pollen of trees, grasses, weeds, or mold spores. Allergy symptoms, triggered by the release of histamine in the body, include itching, sneezing, hives, and wheezing. Seasonal allergic rhinitis or "hay fever," is common this time of the year because of the amount of pollen in the air. Common hay fever symptoms are sneezing, Girl Allergiesstuffiness, runny nose, and watery eyes. Fortunately, there are a number of self-care measures that can help with springtime allergies.

Reducing pollen exposure. For seasonal allergies caused by plants and trees, it is best to try to stay indoors when pollen counts are high. Information on current pollen levels can be obtained from the National Allergy Bureau website. During allergy season, the best time for outdoor activities is after a rain, which helps clear pollen from the air. To reduce exposure to outdoor pollen, keep windows shut and the air conditioner on. Don't mow lawns or rake leaves because it stirs up pollen and molds. Avoid hanging sheets or clothes outside to dry. If you work outside, wear a dust mask.

Keeping indoor air allergy-free. You won't be able to eliminate every allergen from your home, but you can reduce your exposure to them. Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in the bedroom. Wood, tile or vinyl works best for floor surfaces since dust, mold, and pollen can be removed more thoroughly than with carpet. Use of mattress and pillow covers can decrease the exposure to dust mites, since many hay fever sufferers are also allergic to dust mites. Indoor pets should be bathed regularly and kept off of the bed. Remove clothes you've worn outside. Bathe and shampoo hair daily before going to bed to remove pollen from hair and skin.

Over-the-counter (OTC) Antihistamines. All antihistamines, whether OTC or prescription, work by blocking the release of histamine in the body. They are best used when taken prior to the development of symptoms, not after symptoms are present. OTC antihistamines include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin), and cetirizine (Zyrtec).

Cromolyn sodium (NasalCrom) Nasal spray. Like antihistamines, this OTC nasal spray prevents the release of histamine and helps with nasal symptoms of hay fever. It is most effective when taken before symptoms start and may need to be used several times a day.
Neti Pot
Nasal irrigation. Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of nasal irrigation in reducing symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Nasal irrigation can be performed with a neti pot, bulb syringe or squeeze bottle to flush out nasal passages with saline (salt) solution. There have been some reports of infection caused by contaminated neti pots. To prevent this, it is important to wash the irrigation device after each use and allow it to air dry.

Decongestants. Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed), help with symptoms of nasal congestion but do not treat the underlying allergic reaction. Decongestants should not be taken long-term because they may affect blood pressure or urination. Decongestant nasal sprays such as Afrin or Neosynephrine should not be used for more than 3 or 4 days at a time for allergies in order to avoid rebound nasal congestion.

Herbal remedies. Butterbur (Petasites hybridus, 500 mg per day) - appears to have some effectiveness in preventing seasonal allergy symptoms. Two small studies demonstrated that an extract of butterbur was as effective as the antihistamines, Zyrtec or Allegra. As with medications, herbal products have side effects and can interact with other medications or supplements.

When self-care measures fail. There are a number of treatments for managing seasonal allergy symptoms available by prescription or on doctor's recommendation. These include:
  • Nasal steroids, fluticasone (Flonase), budesonide (Rhinocort), mometasone (Nasonex) and triamcinolone (Nasacort).
  • Prescription antihistamines, desloratadine (Clarinex) and the nasal spray azelastine (Astelin),
  • Leukotriene modifiers. Montelukast (Singulair) is a prescription tablet taken to block the action of leukotrienes - immune system chemicals that cause allergy symptoms such as excess mucus production.
  • Allergen immunotherapy ("allergy shots"). Testing to determine specific allergens responsible for symptoms is necessary prior to undergoing desensitizing injections.
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