Acetaminophen, Supplements Most Common Causes of Acute Liver Failure

Woman taking pillsYou’ve probably heard a news piece or two on the dangers of new prescription drugs thought to cause liver damage and disease. But according to new research published this week, prescription meds are the last thing you should be afraid of when it comes to your liver. The most common culprits of serious and sudden liver disease are probably already sitting in your medicine cabinet.

What is acute liver failure?

The liver wears a bunch of different hats in maintaining body function. It helps filter blood full of nutrients coming from your digestive system and serves as a key holding place for first-responder immune cells. It also makes compounds like bile that help with digestion and stores glucose that gets used to regulate blood sugar levels. Finally, most people know it as the body’s detoxifier, since it contains a number of enzymes that inactive substances that could potentially harm the body.

Given the amount of food we eat and the number of chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis, the liver has an incredible reserve when it comes to detoxification and can heal itself extremely well under most circumstances. But those defenses can be overcome if toxic chemicals come in such high concentrations that the liver can’t handle it. If the poisoning is severe enough, large amounts of the liver die and the remaining part can’t take over or heal fast enough. This is called acute liver failure. Those who suffer from it can die and may need a life-saving liver transplant.

What did this research do differently?

While there are a number of medications and other toxins known to be damaging to the liver, no past studies have looked at large populations to see what the most common causes of acute liver failure were. To do this, the researchers looked at all cases of acute liver failure in those over age 18 in the Kaiser Permanente North California healthcare system between 2004 and 2010. Out of about 5.5 million members, about 32 people were admitted to the hospital for acute liver failure caused by medications. The researchers then looked to see what the care teams thought caused the liver failure.

What did the team find?

While many people fear the dangers of prescription drugs, the researchers found that prescription drugs caused very few cases of liver failure. In fact, acetaminophen, a common painkiller and fever reducer caused more than half. Another 20% of cases were caused by dietary or herbal supplements. Antibiotics accounted for about one in 20 cases and the rest were a scattering of various medications.

How does this study affect me?

One in six Americans takes some sort of over-the-counter painkiller on a daily basis and one in five uses dietary or herbal supplements on a regular basis. Many people assume that being able to buy these products in the store means they’re safe to use, but this study shows that both pose a potentially dangerous risk to the liver. Fortunately, cases are rare given how much these compounds are used. This study should serve as a reminder that painkillers and supplements are safe just because they don’t require a prescription.

How can I keep my family and myself safe?

When taking multiple medications in a single day, check to make sure they don’t all contain acetaminophen. Often you’ll find it in painkillers, cold and flu medications and cough medications. Adults should get no more than 3,500 mg per day. Children should be dosed based on their age and weight. Talk to your doctor before starting any herbal or weight-loss supplements. In addition to causing liver failure, they can interact with medications you may be taking and cause a variety of health problems. Do not assume that something labeled as “natural” is automatically safe and healthy.