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A new study suggests fetal exposure to acetaminophen during pregnancy may increase risk for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in life.

Too little information is available on medications and safe dosages for pregnant women and their babies.  At present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS, like ibuprofen, brand name Advil) and opioid pain medications could be linked with certain birth defects.  Despite circulating concerns that acetaminophen (one brand name is Tylenol) could impact risk for ADHD in unborn babies, the drug does not yet carry the same warning.

Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the new research looked at data from the Boston Birth Cohort. The Boston Birth cohort was initiated in 1998 and is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Data collected from this study focuses on environmental factors and genetic conditions that might create or contribute to food allergies or other adverse reproductive conditions.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health undertook the study by analyzing umbilical cord blood from 996 births.  They were looking for acetaminophen and its associated byproducts. Some of the findings of the study include:

  • When this cohort of children was about eight years old, 25 percent had been diagnosed with ADHD, 6.6 percent were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and 4.2 percent were diagnosed with both.
  • Researchers ranked the samples into thirds—from those with the lowest amount of acetaminophen to those with the highest amounts of acetaminophen.
  • When the two data sets were compared, it reveals that those with the children from the middle third of acetaminophen exposure were 2.26 more likely at risk for ADHD. Those in the highest third of exposure to the drug were 2.86 more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis.
  • As well, ASD disorders were higher for those with middle exposure to acetaminophen (2.14 times more risk), and 3.62 times higher for children exposed to the highest amount of acetaminophen during pregnancy.

This study adds to the ongoing conversation about concern for acetaminophen use by pregnant women during pregnancy.  Researchers note, “These findings suggest in utero exposure to acetaminophen is associated with increased risk of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder in children and warrant additional investigations.”

Prenatal healthcare providers should be current on potential dangers to you or your unborn child.  If you are pregnant or considering pregnancy, speak to your physician about concerns for pain treatment before you reach for Tylenol or Advil.

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