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Your Healthy Family: Is acetaminophen use in pregnancy linked to autism, ADHD?

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Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S., affecting one in every 59 children.

A recent study looks at whether taking acetaminophen during pregnancy could increase an unborn child’s chance of being diagnosed with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later on.

The study looked at data from 132,738 pairs of mothers and children over a period of time ranging from 3-11 years.

Salena Zanotti, M.D., did not take part in the study, but said it showed that small amounts of the drug are likely okay.

“What they found is that using acetaminophen occasionally – for example, less than eight days in a pregnancy in one study – there was not an increased risk,” she said.  

While occasional use of acetaminophen did not appear to be harmful, researchers did see an association between prolonged use of the drug and the risk of autism and ADHD.

The children of mothers with prolonged exposure to acetaminophen were shown to have a 20 percent increased risk of autism, and a 30 percent risk of ADHD.

Dr. Zanotti said the difficulty in understanding the significance of the study results comes down to the fact that experts simply don’t know the causes behind autism.

She said the most important thing that pregnant moms need to know is that acetaminophen is still the safest known drug to take to treat problems like fever and pain while pregnant. Also, it’s riskier to have an untreated fever than it is to take acetaminophen while pregnant.

“If you have a fever, or if you have pain that is disrupting your daily life, it’s okay to take acetaminophen,” said Dr. Zanotti. “We just don’t want you taking it every day, long term. But if there are conditions where you might need it, discuss it with your physician because there are some conditions where you do need to take that medication and it might be safest thing.”

Dr. Zanotti said this study tells us that we need more research to know for sure what kind of affect prolonged acetaminophen use can have on a baby.

Complete results of the study can be found in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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