PARACETAMOL overdose is on the increase in Australia, say researchers who are calling for pack size restriction in addition to rescheduling of modified release paracetamol to pharmacist-only from June 2020.

In research published in the MJA, researchers found that the annual number of paracetamol poisoning-related hospital admissions between 2007–08 and 2016–17 had increased by 44.3% or about 3.8% per year. The number of associated cases of toxic liver disease increased by 7.7% per year.

The researchers analysed data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Hospital Morbidity Database, the NSW Poisons Information Centre (NSWPIC) and the National Coronial Information System and identified more than 95 000 hospital admissions with a diagnosis of paracetamol poisoning over the study period.

They noted that the number of paracetamol-related deaths (annual mean, 43 per year; range, 34–57 deaths per year) had remained steady over the decade, which they said might reflect improved treatment guidelines.

Reports to the NSWPIC had also increased, with almost 23 000 reports of intentional overdoses with paracetamol received between 2004 and 2017, an increase of 77% or 3.3% per year.

The findings come after the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced a rescheduling of modified release tablets or capsules containing 665 mg of paracetamol or less from pharmacist-only (S2) to pharmacist-only (S3) from June 2020.

The MJA research showed that modified release paracetamol was implicated in 9.5% of overdoses during 2009–2017 and in 33% of the fatal overdoses.

Dr Angela Chiew, Emergency Physician and Clinical Toxicologist at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital and the NSW Poisons Information Centre, said a key concern in the MJA findings was the increasing size of the overdoses.

“The overdose size is increasing, and the modified release data are very telling because the majority of the pack sizes are 96 tablets and they are [responsible for] much bigger overdoses,” she said, pointing to the finding that overdoses with modified release paracetamol were larger than for immediate release formulations.

Dr Chiew said that, in a submission to the TGA on paracetamol scheduling, she had called for all paracetamol packs of 20 tablets or more to be up-scheduled from S2 to S3.

The MJA researchers found that the median age of overdose was 18 years, and Dr Chiew said this was consistent with recent Australian research published recently in BMJ Open that found that girls born after 1997 were at particular risk of self-harm using paracetamol.

“I think anything more than 20 tablets should be pharmacist-only [S3] because the people we want to help reduce harm in is these young teenage girls,” she said. “I went into a chemist and bought 500 tablets for $10 and nobody stops you and asks you a question, you just go in and buy large amounts.”

In the UK paracetamol pack sizes have been restricted to 8 g for non-pharmacy sales and 16 g for pharmacy sales since 1998. The MJA researchers said the restrictions had been effective in reducing overdose, liver unit admission, and suicide in England and Wales, but had had little impact in Scotland.

Professor Andrew McLachlan, Head of School and Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Sydney’s School of Pharmacy, said it was important to view these latest data in the context of the overall safety of paracetamol in pain management.

“[Paracetamol] is a commonly used analgesic that does provide benefit for pain and fever for many people,” Professor McLachlan told InSight+. “When people think that paracetamol is more dangerous, they might reach for other [medicines] which we know to be more harmful, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and, of course, opioid medicines.”

However, he said, it was concerning to see increasing paracetamol-related harms in Australia, and pack size restrictions, as well as consideration of the appropriateness of the unrestricted sale of 20-tablet packs in supermarkets, could play a role in arresting this trend.

“The data internationally point to the fact that if you have smaller pack sizes, then the opportunity for people to self-harm using paracetamol starts to be substantially reduced and … that alone provides merit for the regulators to consider where those packets are unrestricted, outside of a pharmacy,” he said.

But Professor McLachlan acknowledged that the retailing practices of some pharmacists in the past had drawn criticism.

“I wouldn’t let my pharmacy colleagues off the hook,” he said. “I know that some discount pharmacy chains do provide large packets of paracetamol – 100 tablets—often at very low prices, as loss leaders. Medicines are not normal items of commerce and they should not be promoted in that way, but I think that certainly has been changing.”

Carol Bennett, CEO of Painaustralia, said her organisation had supported the TGA’s decision to up-schedule modified release paracetamol, and it was important that patient education measures were also prioritised in improving the safety of paracetamol use in Australia.

“We were comfortable with the decision to up-schedule modified release paracetamol to Schedule 3; however, we don’t think pharmacists’ advice alone will be enough to alert people to some of the risks associated with this product,” Ms Bennett told InSight+.

“There is a need for better information – not just the pharmacist advising because that can be variable – but actually labelling packs and making sure there is ready availability of information for consumers.”

Ms Bennett said there were “pluses and minuses” in reducing paracetamol pack sizes.

“It could be useful, but the difficulty we see is that many consumers benefit from the cost effectiveness of larger pack sizes,” she said. “I know that might seem at odds with quality use of medicines, but the reality is that many older people with osteoarthritis struggle to pay for their health care needs, particularly OTC pharmaceuticals.”

She said patient education and awareness of non-pharmaceutical pain management options were crucial and would be a feature of the updated National Pain Action Plan, which was expected to be approved by Australian Health Ministers later this year.

“[The plan is] about changing the mindset and the culture of chronic pain being managed with medication alone because that is not best practice.”

Professor McLachlan said he had co-authored several studies in recent years  (here, here, and here) that had shown that paracetamol provided no, or minimal, benefit in the management of low back pain and osteoarthritis.

“Now more than ever, we have the quality information to say the long-term use of paracetamol in those health conditions perhaps isn’t providing the benefit that we always had assumed it was,” he said. “And that does point to the fact that the long term use of paracetamol, while it’s very safe – probably isn’t providing a huge amount of benefit.”


Paracetamol over-the-counter pack sizes should be reduced
  • Strongly disagree (25%, 30 Votes)
  • Strongly agree (24%, 29 Votes)
  • Disagree (23%, 28 Votes)
  • Agree (14%, 17 Votes)
  • Neutral (14%, 17 Votes)

Total Voters: 121

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10 thoughts on “Paracetamol overdoses climb: pack size under scrutiny

  1. steve sonneveld says:

    Are we talking about accidental overdose , as with the opiate issue, or deliberate overdose? If unintentional overdose, then reduction in pack sizes may be useful. If intentional overdose, the individual will simply buy more packets or mix drugs. Reduction in pack sizes will impact those with chronic pain and regular use on convenience and cost. Again restricting access to drugs for everyone because of a problem with a small subgroup is too restrictive and not with proven benefit.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The points made by the anonymous ED nurse warrant strong consideration. The changes to pack sizes in the UK in the late 1990s were direct response to suicides amongst teenage girls (Search Google with “How do I commit suicide with paracetamol?” and 5 of the top ten hits are from the UK). The evidence presented in this paper suggests similarly. We should probably not be surprised at this trend in Australia with the way information is sourced in today’s social media and digital environment.
    Taking an upstream approach to teach resilience and coping skills to adolescents and young people has merit.
    At the same time promoting safe and quality use of paracetamol can be addressed, and that will involve ensuring access for those in need through appropriate channels. Restriction of large pack sizes and modified-release formulations of paracetamol to where the pharmacist must handle the sale is a pragmatic solution. Limits on the pack-sizes sold in grocery and convenience stores, and limits on the number of packs able to be purchased are other tools available to regulators that pragmatically ensure access, and reduce the risk of harm.

  3. Kevin James says:

    The whole ‘opioid crisis’ mentality is getting out of hand, especially when we know alcohol & tobacco deaths are the real problems society faces, i.e. due to their legal or ‘protected’ status.
    AND now we have this new “Panadol” toxicity crisis. Really? Is this the BIGGEST issue facing Australians & medical authrorities regarding disease, health & wellness etc? I don’t think so.
    We DO NOT need to follow the bad public health policy in America imho. For starters, even before Panadol is mentioned, why are legally prescribed pain killer opioids are being summarily cut off from responsible chronic pain patients. What are the options if pain killers are harder & harder to get??

    Some FACTS: “The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States peaked in 2012 and began a steady decline. By 2017, they reached a 15-year low.”

    WHY is this statistic is important??

    ANSWER: “Despite the decline in the number of opioids prescribed, overdoses from all opioids – both legal and illegal – continued to increase. Overdoses involving prescription opioids represent ONLY about 25% of the total number of drug overdoses.” [i.e. illicit drugs/opioids are the problem!!]

    Obviously, something more than the supply of prescription opioids is driving overdoses higher….perhaps “joblessness, homelessness and despair, which are more challenging to address”, are the REAL issues here??

    FINALLY…”Focusing all of our efforts on decreasing the supply of prescriptions will not solve the problem and is already creating unintended consequences.” i.e. harm to the chronic pain population. I say NO to this draconian approach in Australia!! Or any policy not based on common sense.

  4. Pauline says:

    Surely the most logical intervention for prevention of deliberate self injury is universal education about evidence-based emotion and problem behaviour regulation skills in schools. Let’s intervene way up-stream rather than down-stream when the precipitating emotional and behavioural problems are established.

  5. Anonymous says:

    For regular users, paracetamol should be on the PBS to minimize the financial impact. Currently, it is only subsidized on the PBS under the closing the gap scheme. It should be subsidized for all Australians, and then I would agree wholeheartedly with small pack sizes and upscheduling.

  6. Mel H says:

    Surely anyone with half a brain cell can see that this is a suicide/mental health issue NOT a medication issue, NOT a pain issue… Do these people honestly think that demonizing yet another medication is going to somehow make someone who is suicidal suddenly stop and say “hey, I can’t get enough of these tablets to OD, oh well, I guess I won’t go through with it”…. they’ll just find another pill to take or another way to go. Meanwhile the inability of those with the power to act, to give a damn, means more useless, ineffective, utterly moronic decisions that do nothing to address the issue and just penalise people who have absolutely nothing to do with the problem….

  7. Anonymous says:

    Stats say mean age is 18 for paracetamol overdoses. As an ED nurse of over 30 years my experience is that the majority of these are usually poorly thought out spontaneous actions in response to normal negative events (relationship break up, parental boundary setting) It usually involves taking medications that are lying around the home. As these are commonly not pre-planned actions involving teenagers actively going and purchasing medications I fail to see how reducing pack sizes are going to reduce these events. Homes will still have paracetamol in them, probably the same number, just in smaller packets. I think the focus ought to be on why our young are so quick to react to negative events in such a dramatic way and look towards ways to teach them resilience and better coping skills. Reducing packet sizing is unlikely to affect the population taking the overdoses but will negatively affect other unrelated populations.

  8. Dr Graeme Banks says:

    That’s right. Overreact to a minority problem and disadvantage the majority.
    How about researching why these minorities take these extreme measures?
    We should look beyond the ends of our collective noses and do some deep thinking.
    It’s already happened with ephedrine and codeine, now paracetamol’s going to cop it.
    Those ivory tower pygmies give me the pip.
    It’s all related to the breakdown of our society and the lowering of standards. I doubt we will ever learn.
    Meanwhile the slow death of general practice continues.

  9. Graham McCallum says:

    Ivory tower medicine gone mad. Them that can do, and them that have no idea of the world, and can’t earn a bob seeing “real” people write papers and curry favour with politicians with their funding grants in mind.

  10. Anonymous says:

    If paracetamol is restricted by these measures it will disadvantage the elderly and people with chronic pain .
    It will need to be subsidised by the PBS for those people.

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