Paracetamol may relieve a headache, however, research suggests the go-to painkiller could come with an unexpected side effect.
Previous studies imply paracetamol – known as acetaminophen in the US – can dampen emotions, both positive and negative.
To understand whether this then influences risk taking, scientists from The Ohio State University looked at 189 college students, who took either 1,000mg of paracetamol – the generally recommended dose – or a placebo.
Around an hour later, those who had the painkiller rated a range of hair-raising activities as less risky than the students given the sugar pill.
The activities ranged from skydiving and bungee jumping to walking home alone in an unsafe area and starting a new career in your mid-thirties.
Amid the pandemic, the scientists worry patients using paracetamol to relieve mild coronavirus symptoms may then take the risk of leaving the house, when they should be isolating.
“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities, they just don’t feel as scared,” said study author Dr Baldwin Way.
“With nearly 25% of the population in the US taking acetaminophen each week, reduced risk perceptions and increased risk-taking could have important effects on society.”
Paracetamol ‘may prompt people with coronavirus to leave the house’
After having some of the students take a standard paracetamol dose, the Ohio scientists found these participants perceived risk on social and recreational issues significantly less than those on the placebo.
A social example was “moving to a city far away from your extended family”, while the recreational risks included “bungee jumping off a tall bridge”.
“Acetaminophen makes risky moves seem less dangerous,” wrote the scientists.
In a second part of the experiment, 545 students took part in a task developed in 2002 to measure risk-taking behaviour.
The participants were asked to click a button to inflate a balloon on a computer screen.
Each inflation led to the student receiving an imaginary $0.05 (3p). They could stop at anytime, banking their income.
If it burst, however, the participant would lose all the cash.
Previous research has shown taking more risk on this experiment is linked to hazardous behaviour outside of the laboratory, like driving without a seatbelt.
The results – published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience – revealed the students who had taken paracetamol inflated the balloon more times, and had more bursts, than those on the placebo.
“If you’re risk averse, you may pump a few times and then decide to cash out because you don’t want the balloon to burst and lose your money,” said Dr Way.
“But for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the scientists worry paracetamol could influence how cautious a person is in terms of social distancing.
The NHS recommends the drug as the go-to for relieving coronavirus symptoms, like fever, in mild cases.
“Perhaps someone with mild COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they’re taking acetaminophen,” said Dr Way.
“We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take.”