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Image of the Week: Paracetamol

4 Dec, 2015
B0007325 Paracetamol

Paracetamol. Credit: Gwyneth Thurgood. Wellcome Images

With flu season upon us, and no shortage of people coughing and sneezing, we decided to take a closer look at paracetamol in this week’s Image of the Week.

Here we see the crystal structure of paracetamol (known as (acetaminophen in the US), which is one of the world’s most used painkillers. It works by inhibiting an enzyme that is involved in the production of prostaglandins (pro-inflammatory chemicals), thus making the body less aware of aches and pains. Paracetamol can also reduce high temperatures by acting on the area of the brain that is responsible for controlling temperature.

It was a pharmacy mix-up at the University of Strasburg in the 1880s that led to the discovery that acetanilide – a chemical similar to paracetamol – could be used as an effective way to bring down fevers. The problem was that it also had the serious side-effect of deactivating some of the haemoglobin in red blood cells. Over the next few years various derivatives were created to try to reduce the damaging side effect of acetanilide, and in 1893 Joseph von Mering made paracetamol.

There were still concerns that paracetamol had the same side effects of acetanilide, and it wasn’t until after a re-investigation of paracetamol in the 1940s that it was then marketed to the public – first available in the US in 1950.

If a person overdoses on paracetamol it can cause huge damage to the liver, leading to liver failure and death if not caught early enough. In 1998, legislation was passed in the UK to limit the number of tablets per packet of paracetamol, in order to try to reduce the number of suicides from paracetamol overdoses. Evidence suggests that this has helped to reduce the number of deaths from paracetamol poisoning, and there has also been a decrease in registrations for paracetamol-related liver transplants since 1998.

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

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