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Myth Buster: Is Alcohol the Leading Cause of Liver Damage?

Nowadays, it's acetaminophen, not alcohol, that you may need to cut back on.

Myth: Alcohol is the leading cause of acute liver disease.

Facts: That contention might have been true at one time, but it isn’t today. Accidentally overdosing on the popular painkiller acetaminophen—found in Tylenol, its generic copies, and some 200 other prescription and over-the-counter drugs—is the leading cause of acute liver failure, says Rallie McAllister, M.D. The connection between that painkiller and a growing incidence of liver disease began to surface in the 1980s, and a number of studies have since documented the link.

“It isn’t just about taking more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen,” McAllister says. “Often, people are not only taking an extra-strength pain pill with 500 milligrams [eight of those pills in a 24-hour period exceeds the maximum safe dosage], they are also taking other drugs with acetaminophen for back pain or sleep, coughs, or colds. That buildup in the body can lead to liver damage.”

Moreover, people who have liver disease, who drink regularly or excessively, or who are on statin drugs to lower their cholesterol are more susceptible to the damaging effects of acetaminophen because their livers are already burdened.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure you are not taking too much acetaminophen.