Paracetamol is a commonly used medicine that can help treat pain and reduce a high temperature (fever).
It's typically used to relieve mild or moderate pain, such as headaches, toothache or sprains, and reduce fevers caused by illnesses such as colds and flu.
Paracetamol is often recommended as one of the first treatments for pain, as it's safe for most people to take and side effects are rare.
Types of paracetamol
You can buy most types of paracetamol from supermarkets or pharmacies. Some types are only available on prescription.
Paracetamol is available as:
- tablets or caplets
- liquid – usually for children
- soluble tablets (tablets that dissolve in water to make a drink)
- suppositories (capsules inserted into the back passage)
- an injection given into a vein – normally only used in hospital
In some products, such as cold and flu remedies or certain combination painkillers, paracetamol is combined with other ingredients.
It may be sold under the name paracetamol, or under various brand names (which may also contain other ingredients).
Who can take paracetamol
Most people can take paracetamol safely, including:
- pregnant women
- breastfeeding women
- children over 2 months of age – lower doses are recommended for young children (see How to take paracetamol below)
If you're not sure whether you can take paracetamol, check the leaflet that comes with it or ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
Always get advice before taking paracetamol if you:
- have liver or kidney problems
- have problems with alcohol, such as long-term alcohol misuse.
- are very underweight
- are taking other medications (see Interactions with other medicines below)
Don't take paracetamol if you've had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
How to take paracetamol
Make sure you take paracetamol as directed on the label or leaflet, or as instructed by a health professional.
How much you can take depends on your age, your weight, the type of paracetamol you're taking and how strong it is. For example:
- Adults can usually take 1 or 2 tablets (500mg) every 4-6 hours, but shouldn't take more than 4g (8 x 500mg tablets) in the space of 24 hours.
- Children under 16 need to take a lower dose, depending on their age or weight – check the packet or leaflet, or ask a pharmacist or doctor for advice. For very young children, paracetamol liquid is given using a measuring spoon or an oral syringe.
Paracetamol should start to work within an hour and the effect usually lasts several hours. Don't take more than the recommended dose if it isn't relieving your symptoms.
Adults can take ibuprofen at the same time if necessary, but this isn't usually recommended for children.
Contact your GP or phone NHS 24 111 service if your symptoms get worse or last more than 3 days despite taking paracetamol.
Be careful not to use other medications that contain paracetamol as an ingredient (such as some cold and flu remedies) while you're taking paracetamol.
Taking paracetamol with other medicines, food and alcohol
Paracetamol can react unpredictably with certain other medications. This can affect how well either medicine works and might increase the risk of side effects.
It may not be safe to take paracetamol at the same time as:
- other products containing paracetamol – including combination products where paracetamol is one of the ingredients
- carbamazepine – used to treat epilepsy and some types of pain
- colestyramine – used to reduce itchiness caused by primary biliary cirrhosis (a type of liver disease)
- imatinib and busulfan – used to treat certain types of cancer
- ketoconazole – a type of antifungal medicine
- lixisenatide – used to treat type 2 diabetes
- metoclopramide – used to relieve nausea and vomiting
- phenobarbital, phenytoin and primidone – used to control seizures
- warfarin – used to prevent blood clots
Check the leaflet that comes with your medicine to see if it can be taken with paracetamol. Ask a pharmacist or doctor if you're not sure.
There are no known problems caused by taking paracetamol with any specific foods or by drinking moderate amounts of alcohol while taking paracetamol.
Side effects of paracetamol
Side effects from paracetamol are rare but can include:
- an allergic reaction, which can cause a rash and swelling
- flushing, low blood pressure and a fast heartbeat – this can sometimes happen when paracetamol is given in hospital into a vein in your arm
- blood disorders, such as thrombocytopenia (low number of platelet cells) and leukopenia (low number of white blood cells)
- liver and kidney damage, if you take too much (overdose) – this can be fatal in severe cases
Speak to a pharmacist or doctor if you develop any troublesome side effects that you think could be caused by paracetamol.
You can also report suspected side effects using the Yellow Card Scheme.
Overdoses of paracetamol
Taking too much paracetamol, known as an overdose, can be very dangerous.
If you've taken more than the recommended maximum dose, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible.
It can be helpful to take any remaining medicine and the box or leaflet with you to A&E if you can.
Some people feel sick, vomit or have abdominal (tummy) pain after taking too much paracetamol, but often there are no obvious symptoms at first. Go to A&E even if you're feeling well.