I came across an interesting article someone had shared on FaceBook today – yes, getting rid of all the negativity from my feed has left room for interesting stuff – that discussed some unexpected side effects of the painkiller acetaminophen/paracetamol.
Before I go any further, I should probably explain something that’s caused a lot of confusion between myself and my North American friends. Acetaminophen and paracetamol are generic names for the same drug. It’s commonly sold under the brand name Tylenol in the US, which is understandable because acetaminophen is really difficult to pronounce unless you’ve heard the word spoken over and over again since you were a small child. (Despite having done the ‘repeat after me’ thing a few times with different people, I still can’t remember how I’m supposed to pronounce it!) The rest of the world knows it simply as paracetamol, although various different pharma brands like to stick their own label on it to pretend you’re getting something special and then charge you 10 times the price.
Anyway, since I’m British and I live in Spain, and both countries call it paracetamol, I shall stick with that from now on.
So, 3 researchers did a study into the side effects of paracetamol and published their results here in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The study was to test subjects’ empathy levels after taking paracetamol. It wasn’t a huge study, with only 80 participants (40 were given paracetamol and the other 40 given a placebo), but the results were interesting.
After taking paracetamol, subjects were found to be less likely to empathise with the physical or social pain of others.
The reason this is significant is that paracetamol is considered to be the ‘first stop’ painkiller for many people around the world. Although the risks of short term overdose are higher than for other commonly used painkillers, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, the physical side effects of long term use are considered to be much less damaging, so many cultures treat paracetamol as a ‘safe’ painkiller to take regularly. Hence, it can be taken by up to a quarter of adults in the US each week. That’s a lot of people to have their empathy impaired.
Of course, some people are naturally more empathic than others, but even in a study of this size, it’s very unlikely that the results could be caused by natural variations in personality.
What does this mean for society?
Well, look at it this way. Empathising with the suffering of others makes us more likely to be considerate of the difficulties they are facing. Lack of empathy – or in this case, loss of empathy – makes us less likely to be considerate and more likely to disregard their needs.
You can tie this to world events like Brexit and the looming refugee crisis in Europe. A big part of Britain’s ‘Leave’ campaign focused on the need to control immigration and stop people entering the UK and ‘taking our jobs’, ‘sponging off the state’, ‘forcing house prices up’, and so on. The popular argument was – and still is – that immigrants are just lazy people who want to live in Britain because life is easy there. Jobs are more plentiful, and if they can’t get a job … well, they’ll get benefits so they don’t even have to bother to work. It ignores that fact that many people wanting to live in Britain (and other parts of Europe) are suffering and frightened. You have to be frightened for your life to risk drowning in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean in an overloaded boat.
Perhaps the high level of paracetamol use in Britain makes it harder for people to empathise with the refugees’ situation. Perhaps it was a contributing factor in the referendum result. Perhaps continuing high levels of paracetamol use contribute to ongoing conflict around the world, both on a large scale and between individuals. Unless a larger study is funded to address these questions, we’ll probably never know.
But the point is, many of the drugs we confidently take, believing they have few – or even no – negative side effects, are found to have new side effects many, many years after their initial testing and approval. As someone who is dependent on drugs to stay alive, I find it worrying.