A new study suggests a link between the use of a popular pain control drug during pregnancy and high rates of behavioral issues in children. What does this mean for pregnant women?
Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in many pain relief medications. While other drugs may not be suitable for pregnant women, products containing acetaminophen can be used by expectant mothers seeking pain relief for headaches, muscle aches, arthritis, fever or cold symptoms.
The medication is considered safe, and there are no identified risk factors for women or their children. However, a new review from a research team in the UK holds up one possible red-flag.
Researchers from the University of Bristol analyzed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, assessing 7,796 respondents, as well as data on their children and partners. The researchers used questionnaires at various points during pregnancy to examine acetaminophen use among pre and post-natal mothers, in addition to use by the other parent.
The study then contrasted these findings with later reports of behavioral problems in the subjects’ children, up to age seven.
Researchers found that at about 18 weeks of pregnancy, around 53 percent of surveyed mothers were using acetaminophen, and about 42 percent reported using acetaminophen when they reached 32 weeks. In addition, 89 percent of the mothers in the sample reported using acetaminophen after their child was born, as did 84 percent of the women’s partners.
In total, the study found that about five percent of children in the sample would later be identified as having behavioral problems.
While postnatal use of acetaminophen — and use by the co-parent — did not increase the likelihood of a child having behavioral issues, prenatal use of the drug may be a contributing factor.
In fact, researchers found a 42 percent increase in what the study identifies as ”conduct problems.” There was also a 31 percent increase in the risk of hyperactivity disorders, while emotional problems went up by 29 percent.
The study did have several limitations, and they are important for understanding the results. For instance, the study could not identify the dosage that expectant mothers ingested nor how long they were taking acetaminophen. This will be one area of focus for further studies.
The authors of the study explained:
Children exposed to acetaminophen use prenatally are at increased risk of multiple behavioral difficulties. Our findings suggest that the association between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and offspring behavioral problems in childhood may be due to an intrauterine mechanism. Further studies are required to elucidate mechanisms behind this association as well as to test alternatives to a causal explanation. Given the widespread use of acetaminophen among pregnant women, this can have important implications on public health advice.
It is also crucial to highlight that the researchers are not suggesting women should stop taking acetaminophen. The risk of not treating fever or other symptoms is far greater than any possible — and still not proven — behavioral impacts in a child.
Pediatric neurologist Dr. Max Wiznitzer told ABC news that while this study provides important insight, it’s far too early to conclude that acetaminophen use is directly responsible for this problem. “It’s interesting but raises more questions that need to be addressed before you come to firm conclusions,” Wiznitzer said.
In light of this study, perhaps the best advice for an expectant mother and her care team is to use the smallest possible dosage of pain relief and to limit the length of use. The upshot is, keep taking pain relief if you need it, but consult a doctor to minimize any possible risks.