During pregnancy, women adjust what medicine they take for the sake of their child’s health, but most doctors consider acetaminophen to be safe to use for fever and pain. However, a new study has found a link between using acetaminophen while pregnant and behavioral problems in children, including symptoms of ADHD.
The study comes from Evie Stergiakouli, Ph.D., at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, along with other researchers. The researchers published their results in the journal JAMA Pediatrics August 15th. Seeking to find out if acetaminophen use really is safe during pregnancy, the researchers set out to discover if there was a link between a mother’s use of the pain medication during pregnancy and her child’s behavior later in life.
For their study, the researchers looked at data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, beginning in the years 1991 and 1992. The study involved 7,796 mothers along with their partners and children. Data in the study included information from questionnaires at 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, and at ages 5 and 7 years old, analyzing the parents’ acetaminophen use for the first three questionnaires and the child’s behavior for the final questionnaire. Acetaminophen, also called paracetamol, is commonly known as the brand names Tylenol and Panadol.
The data showed that about half the mothers used acetaminophen while pregnant. At 18 weeks into the pregnancy, 4,415 of the mothers, 53 percent, said they used acetaminophen, and at 32 weeks into the pregnancy, 3,381 of the mothers, 42 percent, reported acetaminophen use. This number went up after the pregnancy, with 6,916 mothers, 89 percent, and 3,454 of their partners, 84 percent, using acetaminophen after the child’s birth. At the age of 7, about 5 percent of the children involved in the study had behavioral problems, including symptoms of ADHD.
Use of acetaminophen after the child was born, either by the mother or by their partner, did not seem to be linked with an increased risk of behavioral problems in the child. However, use of acetaminophen during pregnancy was. Mothers who used acetaminophen at 18 and 32 weeks into their pregnancy had a higher risk of having a child who would later have hyperactivity symptoms and conduct problems. When mothers used acetaminophen at 32 weeks of pregnancy, their children were at a higher risk of emotional symptoms and other difficulties. Because the behavioral problems are associated with the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy and not with the use of this drug by parents after birth, it suggests something in the drug is affecting the child as it develops.
The researchers are unsure exactly how acetaminophen affects a developing child’s later behavior. They call for more research into how the drug is affecting the child, or what effects of the drug on the mother may be affecting the child. Another study limitation was that the data included whether a woman used acetaminophen at 18 and 32 weeks but not the dosage or how long she was using the painkillers.
As the study shows, the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy is common, with about half the participants turning to the drug for pain and fever relief. Since the drug’s use seems to be linked to behavior problems in kids, women may want to reconsider turning to acetaminophen for relief of their symptoms. However, the study authors caution against stopping the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy altogether. Not treating pain or fever during pregnancy could also have negative effects on the child, so the mother and her doctor should weigh the benefits and risks when considering using acetaminophen, just like any other treatment.
People usually take acetaminophen to treat their mild to moderate pain or fever. It is not an anti-inflammatory, so researchers are unsure of exactly how the drug works to reduce pain and fever symptoms. Since its discovery in 1877, acetaminophen has become the most commonly-used drug for pain and fever across the United States and Europe, and it is available without a prescription. Doctors usually consider this drug to be safe at the recommended doses, and had previously thought it was safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Acetaminophen overdose could cause liver damage, and other potential side effects of this drug could include a rare skin reaction. As safe as it seems for human use, acetaminophen is toxic to cats and certain other animals.