Butalbital-acetaminophen-caffeine (BAC) is a prescription medication used to treat tension headaches. Although not Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved to treat migraine, doctors sometimes prescribe it for that purpose.
Each dose of BAC contains three different medications:
- 50 milligrams (mg) of butalbital
- 300 to 325 mg of acetaminophen
- 40 mg of caffeine
It comes in capsule, tablet, or liquid form.
BAC is a carefully controlled medication. It contains butalbital, a type of barbiturate. Barbiturates are a class of medications that reduce anxiety by relaxing the nervous system.
There’s a risk of drug poisoning and addiction with barbiturates. BAC also contains acetaminophen. High doses of acetaminophen can be toxic and cause liver damage.
As with any medication, there are reasons for its use when the benefits outweigh the risks. Frequent headaches and migraine episodes can make it hard to cope. It’s important to discuss your management options with a healthcare professional.
Here are some things to know about BAC.
Butalbital-acetaminophen-caffeine: Brands vs. generic
There were previously at least 30 brand names of BAC available. Some of the most common included:
- Vanatol (liquid form)
All but Fioricet have been discontinued.
BAC is also available in a generic form, which is likely to be less costly.
BAC contains three compounds. Each has a different action to help manage pain:
- Butalbital: This compound is a type of barbiturate. It reduces anxiety and causes drowsiness by relaxing your muscles and nervous system. As it can be habit-forming, medications with butalbital are tightly regulated.
- Acetaminophen: This is a widely used medication to reduce pain and fevers. It’s the generic form of Tylenol.
- Caffeine: Caffeine causes the other two ingredients to work better. It also has some anti-inflammatory effects.
Some BAC medications contain additional active ingredients. For example, Fioricet is also available with codeine, an opioid pain reliever.
Is BAC a controlled substance?
As of August 2022, BAC is on the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)’s list of exempted prescription drugs. That means it’s not federally regulated even though it contains butalbital, a regulated substance. Some states still choose to classify BAC as a controlled substance.
In April 2022, the DEA proposed removing the exemption. No decision has been made yet.
When doctors prescribe a drug for something other than its approved use, it’s called off-label use.
Some people do find it works for migraine. Still, there’s not a lot of evidence to support its use.
The study concluded that there was not enough clinical evidence to support the use of drugs like BAC to treat migraine. The authors recommended that doctors choose first from the wealth of options with stronger evidence.
The American Academy of Neurology suggests that medications like BAC be used only as a last resort. Most research suggests that, for most people, the risks outweigh the benefits.
Migraine vs. other headaches
There are different types of headaches. It can be helpful to understand the type of headache you are experiencing. The management may change depending on the type:
- Tension headaches: These feel like pressure around your head or neck. You may also feel pain behind your eyes. The pain can be mild to moderate.
- Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches occur in groups and may cause more severe pain. You may get the same type of headache multiple times a day or week, followed by a period when they go away. They tend to come on quickly.
- Migraine: Migraine features throbbing headaches that can also cause nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity.
As with any medication, there are risks and side effects of BAC.
Some of the most common side effects are:
- abdominal pain
- nausea or vomiting
- feelings of intoxication
Along with side effects, there are other possible risks of BAC.
BAC contains acetaminophen. At high doses (3,000 mg per day), acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
Many other over-the-counter or prescription medications also contain acetaminophen. It’s important to be aware of your total daily intake of acetaminophen.
Dependence and withdrawal
Butalbital is part of the barbiturate family. This group of medications has the potential to create dependence.
Withdrawal symptoms can occur after stopping BAC. This is more likely to happen if you’ve been using BAC for a long time or are developing dependency.
Symptoms of withdrawal may include:
It’s important to seek medical attention if you have any of those symptoms after stopping BAC.
There is not enough research to know if BAC is safe during pregnancy. For this reason, experts recommend that you avoid BAC during pregnancy.
According to 2021 research, barbiturates like butalbital pose several risks to pregnant people. It may suppress your immune system. There’s also a higher risk of developmental issues for the fetus.
Experts generally consider acetaminophen safe during pregnancy. Still, they recommend low doses.
Research suggests that up to
If you’re pregnant or may become pregnant, talk with your doctor about other options.
BAC can interact with other medications. Before taking BAC, it’s important to review your medications with your doctor or pharmacist. Make sure to mention both prescription and nonprescription medications and supplements.
The following types of medication are known to interact with BAC:
- monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors
- general anesthetics
- opioids (also known as narcotics) such as fentanyl, oxycodone, codeine, or methadone
- medications used to treat insomnia
There’s a risk of acetaminophen overdose with BAC and any medications containing acetaminophen. Too much acetaminophen can damage your liver.
Each dose of BAC contains 300 to 325 mg of acetaminophen. Many other medications also contain acetaminophen. Your upper daily limit from all sources is
3,000 mg per day.
Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol. Other common brands containing the compound include:
This isn’t a complete list. Double-check your medications to ensure that you’re taking a safe amount. If unsure, talk with a doctor or pharmacist.
A variety of medications are available to prevent or treat migraine. It can take time to figure out the right types and doses. If you are going through this process, be sure to follow up with a doctor often.
Here are some
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen (Aleve)
Triptans are prescription medications that help to calm nerves that become overactive during a migraine attack. They also shrink enlarged blood vessels in your brain that occur during migraine.
There are currently
Antiemetics help treat nausea and vomiting associated with migraine. These medications include metoclopramide and prochlorperazine.
The above treatments can help you if you have a migraine attack. But some other medications may help you prevent migraine attacks.
Research shows that some antiepileptics may help prevent migraine. But it’s not fully understood
Some antidepressants may also help prevent migraine. Experts are not sure why they prevent migraine. It may have to do with their effect on serotonin in your brain.
The most common antidepressants doctors prescribe to treat migraine are amitriptyline and fluoxetine.
Butalbital-acetaminophen-caffeine (BAC) is a combination medication, with each of its three components working a little differently to manage pain. Doctors prescribe it to treat tension headaches. But a doctor may also prescribe it off-label to treat migraine.
Experts think BAC should be a last resort for migraine treatment. There’s little evidence to support its benefits, and it has some serious risks. They include intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal, among others.
There are several other treatments for migraine with fewer risks. Talk with a doctor to understand your options. Together, you can arrive at a decision that is best for you.
Support for substance use disorder
Medications like butalbital provide relief from pain, both emotional and physical. Over time, your tolerance for butalbital increases. This means you need more of the medication to get any effect from it.
Your brain and body may become dependent on it. Without the medication, it’s possible to get withdrawal symptoms. It’s not your fault if you start to have trouble coping without it.
Talk with a doctor about any concerns.
You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in any of the following ways:
This free service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.