For more than half a century, millions of people took the drug acetaminophen, assuming it posed little risk. The drug was cheap and readily available. Millions of women took the drug during pregnancy.
Is acetaminophen safe to take during pregnancy?
Acetaminophen may not be safe to take during pregnancy. Recent studies indicate that acetaminophen may increase the risk of autism and ADHD for newborns if taken while pregnant. The current consensus among medical professionals is that acetaminophen may cause harm to newborns if taken during pregnancy.
Acetaminophen and Use During Pregnancy
In recent years, medical professionals have become more vocal about the risks of acetaminophen use during pregnancy. They believe there may be a link between use among pregnant women and autism and ADHD in children.
Doctors think the same chemical function that relieves pain may also interfere with normal neurological development and functioning. As these links become increasingly apparent, pregnant women are being cautioned against using the drug.
Acetaminophen is an analgesic. It relieves pain, including headaches, muscle aches, and cramps. It reduces fever.
How does acetaminophen work?
First developed by H. N. Morse in 1878, scientists are still learning how and why acetaminophen works. We know that it reduces pain and fever, but we don’t know exactly why. It’s surprising since the drug is available at every drug and convenience store. Still, so much is unknown about how the drug relieves pain.
Scientists have formulated several theories. They think the drug may inhibit enzymes or block prostaglandin in the central nervous system. Others have suggested that the drug targets serotonin neurotransmission. The truth is, despite the drug’s popularity, scientists and consumers alike don’t know for sure how it affects the body.
Acetaminophen and a False Sense of Security
Even today, some people say that acetaminophen is safe for use during pregnancy:
GoodRx Health says, “In most cases, [acetaminophen] is a safe choice to treat pain during pregnancy.” (GoodRx Health, Can I Take Tylenol While I’m Pregnant, last accessed Oct. 20, 2022).
BabyCenter says, “Acetaminophen is considered the safest over-the-counter pain reliever and fever reducer to take when you’re pregnant.” (Baby Center, Is it Safe to Take Acetaminophen During Pregnancy, last accessed Oct. 20, 2022).
BabyList says, “Doctors frequently recommend pregnant women take the medication to treat occasional mild to moderate pain or to reduce a fever during any trimester during their pregnancy.” (BabyList, Can You Take Tylenol While Pregnant, last accessed Oct. 20, 2022).
Even recently, acetaminophen was accepted as a safe drug for mother and child. However, as scientists looked at the matter more closely, they identified a correlation between drug use and neurological difficulties in children.
Identifying the problem may have been as simple as tracking women during and after pregnancy. One study followed 64,000 women in Denmark over eight years. They asked the women about their pain medication use. Then, they looked at the health histories of their children. They found that mothers using acetaminophen were more likely to have children with ADHD or children taking ADHD medication. They found that mothers who were Tylenol users were more than 1/3 more likely to have a child with a hyperkinetic disorder.
We do not know if acetaminophen is safe to use during pregnancy. Some studies show higher rates of autism and ADHD among children whose mothers used Tylenol while pregnant.
Understanding the Risks of Acetaminophen Use in Pregnancy
Today, with the dangers of acetaminophen use in pregnancy becoming known, the risks are better communicated.
The Yale School of Public Health warns, “A team of 13 scientists — including one from the Yale School of Public Health — are cautioning against the use of pain relievers with acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) by pregnant women, citing a growing body of research that suggests the drug might alter fetal development.” (Yale School of Public Health, Acetaminophen, last accessed Oct. 20, 2022)
Nature Reviews Endocrinology says, “We recommend that pregnant women should be cautioned at the beginning of pregnancy to: forego APAP unless its use is medically indicated; consult with a physician or pharmacist if they are uncertain whether use is indicated and before using on a long-term basis; and minimize exposure by using the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.” (Nature Reviews Endocrinology, Paracetamol use during pregnancy, last accessed Oct. 20, 2022).
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says their guidance remains the same until more definitive research is conducted. However, they warn the medication should be used only as needed. (ACOG, ACOG Response to Consensus Statement on Paracetamol Use During Pregnancy, accessed Oct. 20, 2022).
One thing is clear – it’s no longer clear. While acetaminophen used to be widely accepted and presumed safe, today, scientists are not so sure that its use is safe during pregnancy.