The Most Dangerous Over-the-Counter Drug

Hint: It’s not Plan B.

Brian Palmer

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s recommendation that emergency contraception be made available over the counter to patients of all ages on Wednesday. Her argument was that its effects on 11-year-olds have not been thoroughly studied. Critics pointed out that many over-the-counter drugs are far more dangerous than emergency contraceptives. What’s the most dangerous drug you can buy without a prescription?

It’s hard to say. As far as the Explainer can tell, no researcher has ever compared the fatality rates of every drug available over the counter—probably because the number of deaths from overdose of antacids and many other products is so small as to make the study a waste of time. There is, however, a large body of research on pain relievers. Analgesic overdoses are pretty common in the United States. In 2000, poison-control centers received more than 130,000 calls from people who believed they had taken a dangerous amount of an over-the-counter painkiller. Nearly one-half of those calls concerned acetaminophen, best known as the active ingredient in Tylenol.

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