Paracetamol is often the first type of medication that people reach for when they’re experiencing headaches, pains and high temperatures, but the common painkiller can also cause a strange side effect.
According to the NHS, paracetamol rarely causes side effects if you take it in the right dosage but scientists in the US have discovered that acetaminophen, which is better known as paracetamol, can alter your perception of risk.
A team of scientists at Ohio State University found that those who take the drug are more likely to take risks than those given a placebo.
Their 2020 study, which was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, discovered that people who took the drug rated activities like “bungee jumping off a tall bridge” and “speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work” as less risky than people who took a placebo.
Explaining the findings Baldwin Way, co-author of the study, told Ohio State News : “Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities – they just don’t feel as scared,
“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.”
The scientists tested the hypothesis that paracetamol could influence important judgements and decisions when it came to risk by carrying out three placebo-controlled studies using a series of experiments.
One experiment used in the studies was a computerised task which saw 545 undergraduate student volunteers inflate balloons to earn virtual money, with each pump risking them losing all of their prior earnings if the balloon pops.
They found that those who’d taken the placebo engaged in “significantly less risk taking” with a lower number of average pumps than those who were under the influence of acetaminophen.
Speaking about the findings, Way said: “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,
“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.”
Another experiment saw 189 students taking either 1,000 mg of acetaminophen (the recommended dosage for a headache) or a placebo that looked the same.
After waiting for the drug to take effect, the participants were asked to rate various activities based on how risky they believed them to be on a scale of 1 to 7.
Scientists found that those who had taken acetaminophen rated activities including starting a new career in your mid-30s, walking alone at night in an unsafe area of town, taking a skydiving class and bungee jumping as less risky than the participants who had taken the placebo.
Previous studies led by Way have also shown that paracetamol can reduce both positive and negative emotions, including distress over someone else’s suffering and even your own joy.
Way believes that the results that paracetamol produces on risk perception could have a variety of real-life implications and that more research needs to be done.
He added: “We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take.”