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Even after decades of use, doctors still aren't quite sure how Tylenol works

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 4:11 PM - When we're suffering from a pounding headache or running a high fever, one of the most common drugs we reach for is Tylenol, or acetaminophen. Yet, the way this drug actually relieves pain and reduces fever is apparently so complex that scientists still haven't figured out exactly how it works.

It's been over 100 years since acetaminophen - or paracetamol if you're not in Canada, the U.S. or Japan - was discovered, and it's been available as an over-the-counter medication since the 1960s. Tens of billions of doses sold every year now, and the reason for this is that it works. Results don't lie. However, if you ask researchers how it works, you'll get one of four answers, detailed in the video below:

Does this uncertainty mean we should stop using acetaminophen/paracetamol? Absolutely not. It's been proven, through years of study and use, to be completely safe if used in the right dosage (and this is a pretty strict recommendation, as this 2013 study points out). 

According to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (click here), learning the exact mechanism for how this drug works could lead to the development of even more effective and safer pain relievers. However, with numerous researchers investigating from their own area of expertise, it will likely take bringing the combined research of all these groups to puzzle it out. 

"We’re only getting various hints from each of the groups," Robert B. Raffa of Temple University School of Pharmacy told C&EM News. "If we could put it all together, I think we would have the whole story."

(H/T to Carmen Drahl at C&EM)

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