Paracetamol's full name is Acetaminophen, but it is better known as Panado or Calpol here in South Africa. Paracetamol was synthesised in 1887, but was overshadowed by other pharmaceutical discoveries such as phenacitin and aspirin that launched pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer. It wasn't until 1949 that paracetamol was 'rediscovered' and widely used in over-the-counter flu and fever medicines.
Paracetamol is regarded as a wonder drug: It relieves pain and fever and has very little side effects. It can be used once-off or as a scheduled dose (ie. every 4-6 hours) without causing dependency. It is one of the only pain-relievers that can be used safely by 'vulnerable' groups such as infants, pregnant/breastfeeding women and the elderly.
However, this wonder drug is still shrouded in mystery as its exact mechanism of action is not known.
There are various theories about its role with regards to influencing prostaglandin function. Prostaglandins are fatty, physiologically-active compounds that occur in every cell of our bodies. They use their short lives to convey messages to specific cells in a similar way to our hormones, but prostaglandins are found everywhere and it is this abundance and diversity that is thought to help paracetamol be so effective.
Paracetamol comes in many forms besides the common tablet:
- It can be used in suppository form to reduce fever in an infant;
- It can be given in a drip via an IV line to help patients recover post-surgery;
- it can be taken as a syrup by teething children;
- or it can be as a chewable/dissolvable tablet for those on the run who find themselves with a headache or flu symptoms.
The key is to take an effective dose and to avoid over-dose. Chat to your pharmacist/doctor to find the right dose and form of paracetamol for you!