Pregnancy: Does Acetaminophen Heighten Risk for Autism, ADHD?

What a new study shows and why more research is needed

Pregnancy: Does Acetaminophen Heighten Risk for Autism, ADHD?

Women have long been told that acetaminophen (Tylenol®, Paracetamol®) is the best pain reliever to take during pregnancy.

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Now, a large 2018 Israeli study suggests that taking the drug too often during pregnancy could increase an unborn child’s risks for developing autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Analyzing 7 different studies

Researchers did a meta-analysis of seven studies involving 132,738 pairs of mothers and children.

Patients were followed for periods ranging from three to 11 years, depending on the study, using questionnaires, interviews and self-reports on medication use.

The analysis revealed a 20 percent higher risk of autism and a 30 percent higher risk of ADHD for children who had prolonged exposure to acetaminophen in the womb.

However, it noted that taking small amounts of acetaminophen during pregnancy — in one study, for less than eight days — did not increase risks.

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Commenting on these results, Ob/Gyn Salena Zanotti, MD, notes that “acetaminophen is still the safest known drug to take during pregnancy for problems like fever and pain.

“When you’re pregnant, it’s riskier to have an untreated fever than it is to take acetaminophen.”

Autism, ADHD on the rise

Experts are struggling to understand why autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States, affecting one in every 59 children. The incidence of ADHD is also rising, affecting one in every 20 children.

“Both diseases likely stem from many different factors, so their true cause is poorly understood,” says Dr. Zanotti.

None of the studies that were reviewed looked at environmental factors, maternal characteristics or genetic factors, which could heighten risk for autism or ADHD.

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“We need more research to fully understand the effects of prolonged acetaminophen exposure on the baby during pregnancy,” she notes.

Take-home message for moms

Dr. Zanotti says that “if you have a fever or if pain is disrupting your daily life during pregnancy, it’s OK to take acetaminophen occasionally. We just don’t want you taking acetaminophen every day or long-term.”

Should you need pain relief while you’re pregnant, discuss your options with your physician. For some conditions, limited amounts of acetaminophen might be your safest bet.

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