April 27, 2017
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Mechanism Of action

Acetaminophen Overdose

Acetaminophen is absorbed from the upper gastrointestinal tract with peak plasma levels occurring between 30 and 60 minutes after therapeutic doses and usually within 4 hours following an overdose. It is extensively metabolized in the liver to form principally the sulfate and glucuronide conjugates which are excreted in the urine. A small fraction of an ingested dose is metabolized in the liver by isozyme CYP2E1 of the cytochrome P-450 mixed function oxidase enzyme system to form a reactive, potentially toxic, intermediate metabolite. The toxic metabolite preferentially conjugates with hepatic glutathione to form nontoxic cysteine and mercapturic acid derivatives, which are then excreted by the kidney. Recommended therapeutic doses of acetaminophen are not believed to saturate the glucuronide and sulfate conjugation pathways and therefore are not expected to result in the formation of sufficient reactive metabolite to deplete glutathione stores. However, following ingestion of a large overdose, the glucuronide and sulfate conjugation pathways are saturated resulting in a larger fraction of the drug being metabolized via the cytochrome P-450 pathway and therefore, the amount of acetaminophen metabolized to the reactive intermediate increases. The increased formation of the reactive metabolite may deplete the hepatic stores of glutathione with subsequent binding of the metabolite to protein molecules within the hepatocyte resulting in cellular necrosis.

Acetylcysteine Intravenous Treatment

Acetylcysteine has been shown to reduce the extent of liver injury following acetaminophen overdose. It is most effective when given early, with benefit seen principally in patients treated within 8-10 hours of the overdose. Acetylcysteine likely protects the liver by maintaining or restoring the glutathione levels, or by acting as an alternate substrate for conjugation with, and thus detoxification of, the reactive metabolite.



The steady-state volume of distribution (Vdss) and the protein binding for acetylcysteine were reported to be 0.47 liter/kg and 83%, respectively.


Acetylcysteine may form cysteine, disulfides and conjugates in vivo (N, N'-diacetylcysteine, N-acetylcysteine-cysteine, N-acetylcysteine-glutathione, N-acetylcysteine-protein, etc). Based on published data, it was reported that after an oral dose of 35S-acetylcysteine, about 22% of total radioactivity was excreted in urine after 24 hours. No metabolites were identified.


After a single intravenous dose of acetylcysteine, the plasma concentration of total acetylcysteine declined in a poly-exponential decay manner with a mean terminal half-life (T½) of 5.6 hours. The mean clearance (CL) for acetylcysteine was reported to be 0.11 liter/hr/kg and renal CL constituted about 30% of total CL.

Special Populations

Gender: Adequate information is not available to assess if there are differences in pharmacokinetics (PK) between males and females.

Pediatric: The mean elimination T½ of acetylcysteine is longer in newborns (11 hours) than in adults (5.6 hours). Pharmacokinetic information is not available in other age groups.

Pregnant Women: In four pregnant women with acetaminophen toxicity, oral or intravenous acetylcysteine was administered at the time of delivery. Acetylcysteine was detected in the cord blood of 3 viable infants and in cardiac blood of a fourth infant sampled at autopsy [see Pregnancy].

Hepatic Impairment: In subjects with severe liver damage, i.e., cirrhosis due to alcohol (with Child-Pugh score of 7-13), or primary and/or secondary biliary cirrhosis (with Child-Pugh score of 5-7), mean T½ increased by 80% while mean CL decreased by 30% compared to the control group.

Renal Impairment: Pharmacokinetic information is not available in patients with renal impairment.

Geriatric Patients: Adequate information on acetylcysteine PK in geriatric patients is not available.

Clinical Studies

Loading Dose/Infusion Rate Study

A randomized, open-label, multi-center clinical study was conducted in Australia to compare the rates of anaphylactoid reactions between two rates of infusion for the intravenous acetylcysteine loading dose. One hundred nine subjects were randomized to a 15 minute infusion rate and seventy-one subjects were randomized to a 60 minute infusion rate. The loading dose was 150 mg/kg followed by a maintenance dose of 50 mg/kg over 4 hours and then 100 mg/kg over 16 hours. Of the 180 patients, 27% were male and 73% were female. Ages ranged from 15 to 83 years, with the mean age being 29.9 years (+13.0).

A subgroup of 58 subjects (33 in the 15-minute treatment group; 25 in the 60-minute treatment group) was treated within 8 hours of acetaminophen ingestion. No hepatotoxicity occurred within this subgroup; however with 95% confidence, the true hepatotoxicity rates could range from 0% to 9% for the 15-minute treatment group and from 0% to 12% for the 60-minute treatment group.

Observational Study

An open-label, observational database contained information on 1749 patients who sought treatment for acetaminophen overdose over a 16-year period. Of the 1749 patients, 65% were female, 34% were male and less than 1% was transgender. Ages ranged from 2 months to 96 years, with 71.4% of the patients falling in the 16-40 year old age bracket. A total of 399 patients received acetylcysteine treatment. A post-hoc analysis identified 56 patients who (1) were at high or probable risk for hepatotoxicity (APAP greater than 150 mg/L at the four hours line according to the Australian nomogram) and (2) had a liver function test. Of the 53 patients who were treated with intravenous acetylcysteine (300 mg/kg intravenous acetylcysteine administered over 20-21 hours) within 8 hours, two (4%) developed hepatotoxicity (AST or ALT greater than 1000 U/L). Twenty-one of 48 (44%) patients treated with acetylcysteine after 15 hours developed hepatotoxicity. The actual number of hepatotoxicity outcomes may be higher than what is reported here. For patients with multiple admissions for acetaminophen overdose, only the first overdose treated with intravenous acetylcysteine was examined. Hepatotoxicity may have occurred in subsequent admissions.

Evaluable data were available from a total of 148 pediatric patients (less than 16 years of age) who were admitted for poisoning following ingestion of acetaminophen, of whom 23 were treated with intravenous acetylcysteine. Of the 23 patients who received intravenous acetylcysteine treatment, 3 patients (13%) had an adverse reaction (anaphylactoid reaction, rash and flushing, transient erythema). There were no deaths of pediatric patients. None of the pediatric patients receiving intravenous acetylcysteine developed hepatotoxicity while two patients not receiving intravenous acetylcysteine developed hepatotoxicity. The number of pediatric patients is too small to provide a statistically significant finding of efficacy; however the results appear to be consistent to those observed for adults.

Postmarketing Safety Study [see Clinical Studies Experience]

Last reviewed on RxList: 1/22/2016
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.

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