A New Zealand-led study suggests paracetamol use may enable the sickest hospital patients to recover more quickly.
The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved 2500 doctors and nurses in intensive care units throughout New Zealand and Australia.
Paracetamol has been around for decades but doctors have worried that its use in hospitals to reduce fever, which might help fight infection, could do more harm than good.
New guidelines for the management of paracetamol poisoning in Australia and New Zealand were recently published and clinicians on both sides of the Tasman have reinforced warnings that large doses of the painkiller are toxic.
Lead researcher Paul Young said the new study revealed paracetamol was safe for critically ill patients. In many cases it enables them to leave hospital quicker, and it appeared to delay death in patients who would ultimately die.
"That's perhaps the most surprising finding really which suggests that paracetamol has the potential to speed up recovery and delay death," said Dr Young, an intensive care specialist at Wellington Hospital,
"It's a finding that demands I think further study."
Dr Young said it was also of interest to others, not in hospital, using the painkiller.
"Paracetamol was well tolerated and safe in the sickest patients with infections. I think that is important for people in the community with mild infections, because it is reasonable to surmise that's it's a safe thing to take in that setting."