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updated 5/3/2011 1:05:50 PM ET 2011-05-03T17:05:50

The American public is confused about what's in popular over-the-counter painkillers, according to a small new study. That fact could put people at risk for taking too much medication or taking potentially dangerous combinations.

Only 31 percent of people in the study knew that Tylenol contains acetaminophen, while 75 percent of people knew that Bayer contained aspirin and 47 percent of people knew that Motrin contains ibuprofen, the study said.

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Nineteen percent of people in the study knew that Aleve contains naproxen sodium, and 19 percent of people knew Advil contains ibuprofen, according to researchers from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of liver failure among adolescents and young adults — some accidental, some intentional, said Dr. Lee M. Sanders, an associate professor of pediatrics at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who was not involved with the study.

The big concern is that people are taking multiple medications that contain acetaminophen without realizing that they all contain the ingredient, he said

The study was published today (May 3) in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Participants' knowledge
Researchers conducted focus groups with 45 English-speaking adults in two cities to test their knowledge and use of over-the-counter painkillers. Forty-four percent of the people in the groups read at or below a sixth-grade level.

However, the population represents low-income and low-educated people who are at the greatest risk for medication safety issues, Sanders said.

Researchers found that only 41 percent of people in the study read the ingredients on the drug labels. They also learned that some of the ingredients are confusing to people, since, for example, acetaminophen is also called "APAP" on some drug labels.

Labeling suggestions
While the study’s findings are alarming, they are not surprising, Sanders said. Previous research by Sanders shows that there is similar confusion among the parents of young children who use liquid over-the-counter medication for their children.

It's not consumers' fault that the labels are so confusing, Sanders said.

"I think the marketing and labeling of these products is very confusing," Sanders told MyHealthNewsDaily. "I often get called by medical colleagues (M.D.s and Ph.D.s) with questions about this."

The study researchers propose having a symbol printed on the drug label that indicates the active ingredient, so that people can easily see what they are taking. They also suggest having clearer warnings on drug packaging for liver damage.

Pass it on: Many people do not know what's in their over-the-counter pain relievers.

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