Acetaminophen, which is found in over 600 medicines, is used by 23% of the U.S. population weekly, mostly for its pain- and fever-reducing effects. But along with blunting your pain, it may also be dampening your response to risks, such that you become more likely to take them while using the drug.
Researchers from The Ohio State University recruited 189 college students to take part in the study. They were given either 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen or a placebo, then, once the drug took effect, they were asked to rate various activities based on risk on a scale of 1 to 7.
Those who took acetaminophen rated the activities, which included things like walking home alone at night in an unsafe area or bungee jumping, as less risky than those who took the placebo. In another study by the same researchers, undergraduate students took part in a test to measure risk-taking behavior.
The study involved clicking a button to inflate a balloon on a computer. As it inflated, they were rewarded with money, but if it got too big and burst, they lost it all. Students who took acetaminophen were more likely to keep pumping the balloon and had more balloons burst than students not taking the drug.
“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,” study co-author Baldin Way said in a news release. “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.”
Taking more risks on the laboratory test has been linked to increased risk-taking outside of the lab, including driving without a seatbelt, using drugs and alcohol and stealing. This is what has the researchers concerned, especially considering how widespread acetaminophen usage is.
“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared,” Way said. “With nearly 25 percent of the population in the U.S. taking acetaminophen each week, reduced risk perceptions and increased risk-taking could have important effects on society.