Consumer group launches campaign to help teens use over-the-counter pain medications safely during the school year – National Consumers League

October 10, 2013

Contact: Ben Klein, NCL Communications, 202-835-3323,

Washington, DC — According to the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy group, the National Consumers League (NCL), use of over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve pain, cold and flu symptoms, and allergies among American teenagers is widespread but often uninformed. The Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization today is launching a national multi-media campaign aimed at educating teens and young adults about the risks of misusing OTC pain medications.

“When it comes to safety and health, teens often think they know more than they actually do,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director. “We have found teens as young as 13 years old, uninformed and self-medicating with OTC medications. And, while many teens do look to their parents and other adults for counsel and instruction about using OTC medications, many adult consumers aren’t properly using the medications themselves, setting a bad example for their children, and putting themselves at risk of serious health consequences.”

Today NCL is launching, an interactive site for teens to educate about the safe use of OTC pain medications. TakeWithCare addresses some of the most common misconceptions about the safety of the medications: the importance of reading and following labels, taking the labeled dose and consulting with parents and health care professionals. NCL has also created new OTC safety curriculum for its LifeSmarts program, a national consumer education competition and in-classroom aid for middle and high school students, and is today releasing the research about teen use of OTC medications that was used in the development of the new site.

Over-the-counter pain medications containing acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are among the most commonly used drugs in the United States, yet also pose dangers when misused. Taking more than the recommended amount can cause liver damage (in the case of acetaminophen) and stomach bleeding (in the case of NSAIDs). According to the Food and Drug Administration, many cases of overdose are caused by patients inadvertently taking more than the recommended dose of a particular product, taking multiple medicines containing the same active ingredients, or by taking both OTC and prescription versions concurrently.

Research commissioned by NCL has found that Americans, young and old, are in need of education on the safe use of OTC pain medication, and it was this research that drove the organization to produce the new educational campaign. The 2009 Harris Interactive survey conducted online among both teens aged 13 to 17 and adults aged 18 and older, found that nearly as many American teenagers (75 percent) as adults (84%) have used OTC pain medications  in the past year. Nearly two in three of teen respondents (64%) said they have used an OTC pain medication in the last six months, most commonly for headaches, sports or exercise-related pain and muscle aches, or menstrual pain. More than two-thirds (69%) of teen OTC pain medication users consult with their parent(s) before taking the OTC pain medication. The survey found a substantial percentage of teens are using the medicines regularly: Incidence of use of OTC pain medications daily or several times per week is 15 percent among 13- to 15-year-olds, and 21 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds report using OTC pain medications at least several times a week.

Despite how widespread it is, their usage behavior is not flawless: one-quarter of teen OTC pain medication users reported having taken the next dose sooner than directed, expecting more frequent usage to result in better relief. Also alarming to the consumer group, is the finding that many teens taking the medications often do so without awareness of the products’ active ingredients. Only one in four (27%) teens said they knew what the active ingredient is in their most-often used OTC pain medication. This number is lower than among adults, 56% of adults saying they knew the active ingredient in their most often used OTC pain medication.

“If you aren’t aware of exactly what’s in the product you’re taking – whether it’s a pain reliever, cough suppressant, fever reducer, sinus medication, or something else, you’re putting yourself at risk for doubling-up on the same active ingredient and exposing your body to the potential harm caused by that overdosing,” said Greenberg. “Many consumers self-treating pain, cold or flu symptoms may turn to more than one product, often multi-ingredient, without realizing that they’re putting themselves at potential risk of stomach or liver problems.”

“The opportunity to educate teens about proper OTC pain medication use exists when they are young and have the potential to form better habits than their adult counterparts,” said Rebecca Burkholder, NCL Vice President for Health Policy. “As teens age and enter adulthood, they are using OTC pain medications more frequently and with increasingly less adult supervision. While we were pleased to see that the majority of teens are consulting a parent or guardian about such medication use, the goal of Take With Care is to instill good habits across the board.”

Survey Highlights

Use without confidence

Although the majority of teens self report having used OTC pain medications recently, overall, teens lack knowledge about OTC pain medications. In addition, there is little awareness of the active ingredients in their pain medications and they lack familiarity with acetaminophen.

  • Nearly two-thirds of teens (64%) have used OTC pain medications in the past six months. However, nearly three-quarters (73%) of teen OTC pain medications do not know or are not sure of the main active ingredient in the OTC pain medication they take most frequently. For example, fewer than one-fifth of teens (16%) are very or fairly familiar with the active ingredient acetaminophen. One-third of teens (33%) do not believe acetaminophen is sold under the brand Tylenol™, a concern to advocates given that Tylenol is one of the most well-known brands containing acetaminophen.

Dangers of mixing products

  • Despite the fact that nearly half of teens indicate some uncertainty about the safety of using two products that contain acetaminophen at the same time, some teen OTC pain medication users are using OTC pain medications and other medications concurrently, a practice advocates and government health experts strongly caution against.
  • Nearly half of teens (48%) are unsure as to whether it is safe to take two products containing acetaminophen at the same time.
  • Nearly half of teens (44%) are unsure if it is okay to take OTC PMs while taking an OTC product for cold or sinus conditions, and 18 percent of teen OTC PM users have taken an OTC PMs with an OTC for cold or flu.
  • While use of prescription painkillers among teens is low (10%), nearly all teen respondents were unable to correctly identify APAP as the prescription abbreviation for acetaminophen. As their adult counterparts demonstrated a tendency to use prescription and OTC painkillers concurrently (44% had reported doing so), advocates are strongly concerned about teens’ ability to identify what they are taking in order to avoid overdose.


Teens admit they are using OTC PMs other than directed on the label.

  • One-quarter (24%) of teen OTC PM users report they have taken the next dose sooner than directed; 15% report they have taken more pills at a single time or more than the number of doses per day as directed on the label (7%).
  • Nearly one third (32%) of teens think that it is either not possible (9%) or are not sure (23%) that one can  overdose on OTC

Parental influence

Most young people rely most heavily on parental guidance when it comes to making health decisions including taking OTC PMs, which, on the surface seems wise, but could pose risks, considering the poor self-reported habits of some of the adults surveyed.

    • Two-thirds (66%) of teens report their parent(s) influence them the most when it comes to making decisions about their health.
    • More than two-thirds (69%) of teen OTC PM users consult with their parent(s) before taking the OTC PM.
    • In general, a relatively small but significant number of teens say they would take OTC medicines without first consulting with a parent (22% say they never or rarely consult a parent) and only 39% say they always check with a parent. Older teens are less likely to consult a parent than younger teens.Only 4% of teens have consulted a healthcare professional always or often about information that was unclear to them on an OTC drug package.
    • 66% of teens say they are most influenced by parents in terms to decision about their health. 12% say other people (like friends, siblings, teachers) and 11% say doctors are the “most” influential.

Following (or not) the labels

Most teens say they read the directions on a new OTC PM, but other elements are read less often. Teens admit to not reading the labels every time they take the medications.

  • Two-thirds of teens (63%) say they “always or often” read the directions the first time they take an OTC medication.
  • Only one in four (28%) teens say they read the active ingredients the first time they take an OTC product, 44% say they never / rarely read this information
  • Roughly half of teens (48 percent) say they always/often read the label information on warning and side effects

About the Survey

NCL commissioned this survey with an unrestricted educational grant from McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

This Knowledge of and Behavior Around Acetaminophen Use Survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the National Consumers League between May 29. 2009 and June 11, 2009 among 536 youth, aged 13 to 17 and 1,731 adults aged 18 and older, with an oversample of 200 English-speaking Hispanic adults.

Complete survey results, fact sheets for consumers, and other resources are available at


About the National Consumers League
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

About Harris Interactive®
Harris Interactive is one of the world’s leading market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll® and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers proprietary solutions in the areas of market and customer insight, corporate brand and reputation strategy, and marketing, advertising, public relations and communications research. Serving clients in more than 196 countries and territories through our North American and European offices, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us – and our clients—stay ahead of what’s next. For more information, please visit