Scientists say that one of the most commonly taken drugs in the US could be doing more than just taking the edge off your headaches.
A study published in 2020 shows that the common over-the-counter medication, also known as paracetamol, increases risk-taking.
Baldwin Way from The Ohio State University explained last year that the drug Adderall makes people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities.
Reducing risk perception and increasing risk-taking could have important effects on society, with 25 percent of the population in the US taking a drug.
A recent body of research suggests that the effects of pain reduction on psychological processes, such as receptivity to hurt feelings, and reduced empathy, are related to the use of acetaminophen.
Way's study shows that people's ability to perceive and evaluate risks can be impaired if they take a drug like acetaminophen. The effects might be slight, but they're worth noting, given that acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in America.
In a series of experiments involving over 500 university students as participants, Way and his team measured how a single 1,000-mt dose of acetaminophen (the recommended maximum adult single dosage) randomly assigned to participants affected their risk-taking behavior, compared against placebos randomly given to a control group.
In each experiment, participants had to inflate a balloon on a computer screen and then make money by using the inflated balloon to make money on the computer screen. They were told to make sure not to pop the balloon in order to make as much money as possible, but also to make sure they didn't lose any money.
The students who took acetaminophen were more risk-taking than the placebo group. Those on the drug pumped their balloons more than the controls.
"If you're risk-averse, you may cash out if you don't want the balloon to burst and lose your money," Way said.
As the balloon gets bigger, we believe that those on the drug have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting.
The balloon simulation was one of the experiments where participants were asked to rate the risk they perceived in various scenarios, such as bungee jumping off a tall bridge, or driving a car without a seatbelt.
In one of the surveys, the effect of acetaminophen consumption on perceived risk was not observed in another survey.
The team concludes that there is a significant relationship between taking a drug and choosing to take more of it, even if the effect is small.
They acknowledge that the drug's effects on risk-taking behavior could be interpreted in other ways.
The researchers theorize that as the balloon increases in size, those on placebo feel more anxious.
They end the trial when the anxiety becomes too much. Increased risk taking may be a result of the reduction of anxiety.
The team said that exploring psychological alternative explanations for this phenomenon as well as investigating the biological mechanisms responsible for acetaminophen's effects on people's choices in situations like this should be addressed in future research.
Scientists will have future opportunities to further investigate the role and efficacy of acetaminophen in pain relief after studies in recent years found that the drug can be ineffective at pain relief and sometimes is no better than a placebo.
Despite the seriousness of those findings, the World Health Organization and the CDC still recommend that people with suspected COVID-19 use acetaminophen at home to relieve their pain.
Way said that we might want to rethink some of the advice we're given in light of what we're finding out about the drug.
Way said that someone with mild COVID-19 symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they're taking acetaminophen.
We need more research on the effects of over-the-counter drugs on our choices and risks.
The findings are reported in a journal.
The September 2020 edition of this article was published.