In the News: Acetaminophen Use in Pregnancy Linked to ADHD?

By: Cyndy McGrath

A large, but mostly preliminary, study released last night in JAMA Pediatrics seems to contradict conventional wisdom regarding an over-the-counter pain reliever and its safety for pregnant women.
Researchers from the University of Aarhus in Denmark looked for a link between acetaminophen and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) because they believed the medication might act as a hormone “disruptor”- and affect fetal brain development.
Danish researchers surveyed the mothers of 64,000 children born from 1996 to 2002, and asked about their use of painkillers during pregnancy. The study results show children whose mothers took acetaminophen were 13 percent more likely to exhibit ADHD-like symptoms.
So what is a mom-to-be to do when she needs pain relief? 
Hyagriv Simhan, M.D., chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine and vice chair for Obstetrical Services for Magee-Womens Hospital ofUPMC said pregnant women who have taken recently taken Tylenol or other painkillers containing acetaminophen should not be overly alarmed that they have done something that would harm their baby’s development.
“I wouldn’t advise changing clinical care solely on the basis of this one study,” said Dr. Simhan. “There does not appear to be a convincing biological basis for why acetaminophen would be related to ADHD.  In fact, in this study, where a little more than half of the women took Tylenol during pregnancy, the vast majority of the babies did not develop ADHD.”
Dr. Simhan noted that other pain medications and fever reducers may have effectiveness or safety profiles that may not make them a good choice for pregnant women.
For example, a number of research studies show ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can disrupt fetal development.
“I’d advise women to speak with their obstetricians before making any changes to medications,” said Dr. Simhan. “A woman’s individual medical history needs to be considered for a doctor to make the best recommendation.”
Other experts say the Danish study does not prove a cause-and effect relationship between acetaminophen use and ADHD.
“This is one area where more research is really needed,” said Dr. Simhan.