Paracetamol is recommended as first-line therapy for pain associated with osteoarthrosis and is one of the most widely used over-the-counter analgesic drugs worldwide. Despite its extensive use, its mode of action is still unclear. Although it is commonly stated that paracetamol acts centrally, recent data imply an inhibitory effect on the activity of peripheral prostaglandin-synthesising cyclooxygenase enzymes. In this context paracetamol has been suggested to inhibit both isoforms in tissues with low levels of peroxide by reducing the higher oxidation state of cyclooxygenase enzymes. Two recent studies have also demonstrated a preferential cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2) inhibition by paracetamol under different clinically relevant conditions. This review attempts to relate data on paracetamol's inhibitory action on peripheral cyclooxygenase enzymes to the published literature on its anti-inflammatory action and its hitherto underestimated side-effects elicited by cyclooxygenase inhibition. As a result, a pronounced COX-2 inhibition by paracetamol is expected to occur in the endothelium, possibly explaining its cardiovascular risk in epidemiological studies. A careful analysis of paracetamol's cardiovascular side-effects in randomised studies is therefore strongly advised. On the basis of epidemiological data showing an increased gastrointestinal risk of paracetamol at high doses or when co-administered with classic cyclooxygenase inhibitors, paracetamol's long-term gastrointestinal impact should be investigated in randomised trials. Finally, paracetamol's fast elimination and consequently short-lived COX-2 inhibition, which requires repetitive dosing, should be definitely considered to avoid overdosage leading to hepatotoxicity.
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Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.