1. About paracetamol for adults
Paracetamol is a common painkiller used to treat aches and pain. It can also be used to reduce a high temperature.
It's available combined with other painkillers and anti-sickness medicines. It's also an ingredient in a wide range of cold and flu remedies.
For under-16s, read our information on paracetamol for children.
2. Key facts
- Paracetamol takes up to an hour to work.
- The usual dose of paracetamol is one or two 500mg tablets at a time.
- Do not take paracetamol with other medicines containing paracetamol.
- Paracetamol is safe to take in pregnancy and while breastfeeding, at recommended doses.
- Brand names include Disprol, Hedex, Medinol and Panadol.
3. Who can and cannot take paracetamol
Most people can take paracetamol safely, including pregnant and breastfeeding women.
However, some people need to take extra care with paracetamol.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you:
- have had an allergic reaction to paracetamol or any other medicines in the past
- have liver or kidney problems
- regularly drink more than the maximum recommended amount of alcohol (14 units a week)
- take medicine for epilepsy
- take medicine for tuberculosis (TB)
- take the blood-thinner warfarin and you may need to take paracetamol on a regular basis
4. How and when to take it
Paracetamol can be taken with or without food.
The usual dose for adults is one or two 500mg tablets up to 4 times in 24 hours.
Always leave at least 4 hours between doses.
Overdosing on paracetamol can cause serious side effects. Do not be tempted to increase the dose or to take a double dose if your pain is very bad.
Adults can take a maximum of 4 doses (up to eight 500mg tablets in total) in 24 hours. Wait at least 4 hours between doses.
Different types of paracetamol
Paracetamol is widely available as tablets and capsules.
For people who find it difficult to swallow tablets or capsules, paracetamol is also available as a syrup or as soluble tablets that dissolve in water to make a drink.
What if I take too much?
Taking 1 or 2 extra tablets by accident is unlikely to be harmful, as long as you do not take more than 8 tablets in 24 hours.
Wait at least 24 hours before taking any more paracetamol.
If you need to go to your nearest A&E, take the paracetamol packet or leaflet inside it plus any remaining medicine with you.
What if I forget to take it?
If you take paracetamol regularly and miss a dose, take it as soon as you remember. However, skip the missed dose if it's nearly time for your next dose.
Never take double doses of paracetamol. Do not take an extra dose to make up for a missed one.
If you forget doses often, it may help to set an alarm to remind you. You could also ask your pharmacist for advice on other ways to help you remember to take your medicine.
5. Taking paracetamol with other painkillers
Do not take paracetamol alongside other medicines that contain paracetamol. If you take 2 different medicines that contain paracetamol, there's a risk of overdose.
Before taking any other medicines, check the label to see whether they contain paracetamol.
Paracetamol is an ingredient in many remedies you can buy from pharmacies and supermarkets, including:
- migraine remedies
- cough and cold products, such as Lemsip and Night Nurse
Some prescription medicines contain paracetamol combined with other painkillers, such as:
6. Side effects
Paracetamol very rarely causes side effects if you take it at the right dosage.
If you're worried about a side effect or notice anything unusual, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.
Serious allergic reaction
In rare cases, it's possible to have a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to paracetamol.
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if:
- you get a skin rash that may include itchy, red, swollen, blistered or peeling skin
- you're wheezing
- you get tightness in the chest or throat
- you have trouble breathing or talking
- your mouth, face, lips, tongue or throat start swelling
You could be having a serious allergic reaction and may need immediate treatment in hospital.
These are not all the side effects of paracetamol. For a full list, see the leaflet inside your medicines packet.
You can report any suspected side effect to the UK safety scheme.
7. Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Can I take paracetamol when I'm pregnant?
Paracetamol is the first choice of painkiller if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
It's been taken by many pregnant and breastfeeding women with no harmful effects in the mother or baby.
For more information about how paracetamol can affect you and your baby during pregnancy, read this leaflet on the Best Use of Medicines in Pregnancy (BUMPS) website.
If you take paracetamol in pregnancy or while breastfeeding, take the lowest dose of paracetamol that works for you for the shortest possible time.
8. Cautions with other medicines
It's safe to take paracetamol with most prescription medicines, including antibiotics.
Paracetamol isn't suitable for some people. Talk to your doctor if you take:
- the blood-thinner warfarin – paracetamol can increase the risk of bleeding if you take it regularly
- medicine to treat epilepsy
- medicine to treat tuberculosis (TB)
Mixing paracetamol with herbal remedies and supplements
Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking St John's wort (a herbal remedy taken for depression) as you may need to reduce your paracetamol dose.
Otherwise, paracetamol isn't generally affected by also taking herbal remedies or supplements.
For safety, tell your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking any other medicines, including herbal remedies, vitamins or supplements.
9. Common questions
How does paracetamol work?
Paracetamol seems to work by blocking chemical messengers in the brain that tell us we have pain.
Paracetamol also reduces fever by affecting the chemical messengers in an area of the brain that regulates body temperature.
When will I feel better?
Paracetamol takes up to an hour to work. It keeps on working for about 5 hours.
Is paracetamol better than ibuprofen?
The type of medicine you need to treat your pain depends on what type of pain you have.
Paracetamol and ibuprofen work in different ways. So paracetamol is better than ibuprofen for some types of pain.
What if paracetamol doesn't work?
If paracetamol doesn't work, there are other types of painkiller you can try, including:
Ibuprofen and ibuprofen-like painkillers are sometimes available as creams or gels that you rub on to the part of your body that's painful.
Some painkillers are only available on prescription.
Can I take paracetamol for a long time?
It's safe to take paracetamol regularly for many years as long as you don't take more than the recommended dosage.
Will it affect my fertility?
There's no firm evidence to suggest that taking paracetamol will reduce fertility in either men or women.
Can I drink alcohol with it?
Drinking a small amount of alcohol while taking paracetamol is usually safe. Try to keep to the recommended guidelines of no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. A standard glass of wine (175ml) is 2 units. A pint of lager or beer is usually 2 to 3 units of alcohol.
It may not be safe for you to drink alcohol with paracetamol if you have certain health conditions, such as liver problems.
Check the leaflet in your medicine packet to find out whether it's safe to drink alcohol when taking paracetamol.
Is there any food or drink I need to avoid?
You can eat and drink normally while taking paracetamol.
You can safely take paracetamol (but not ibuprofen) on an empty stomach.