Mechanism of action and value of N-acetylcysteine in the treatment of early and late acetaminophen poisoning: a critical review

J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 1998;36(4):277-85. doi: 10.3109/15563659809028022.


Introduction: The mechanism of action of N-acetylcysteine in early acetaminophen poisoning is well understood, but much remains to be learned of the mechanism of its possible benefit in acetaminophen poisoning presenting beyond 15 hours.

Methods: Selective review of medical literature. N-acetylcysteine should be used in all cases of early acetaminophen poisoning where the plasma acetaminophen concentration lies "above the line;" which line is chosen depends on individual preference and whether enzyme induction is suspected. Particular care should be taken with the use of the nomogram for patients with chronic excess ingestion of acetaminophen or for those who have taken slow-release formulations.

Conclusions: While there is a trend suggesting a beneficial effect of N-acetylcysteine in some patients presenting beyond 15 hours, further research is necessary to establish just how effective N-acetylcysteine is, particularly in patients presenting with fulminant hepatic failure. Candidate mechanisms for a beneficial effect in-clude improvement of liver blood flow, glutathione replenishment, modification of cytokine production, and free radical or oxygen scavenging. Hemody-namic and oxygen delivery and utilization parameters must be monitored carefully during delayed N-acetylcysteine treatment of patients with fulminant hepatic failure, as unwanted vasodilation may be deleterious to the maintenance of mean arterial blood pressure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / poisoning*
  • Acetylcysteine / adverse effects
  • Acetylcysteine / pharmacokinetics
  • Acetylcysteine / pharmacology*
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / poisoning*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Free Radical Scavengers / adverse effects
  • Free Radical Scavengers / pharmacokinetics
  • Free Radical Scavengers / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Poisoning / drug therapy*


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Acetaminophen
  • Acetylcysteine