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Hebrew University study: Extended acetaminophen use during pregnancy increases risk of ASD/ADHD

New evidence gathered from 132,738 mother-child pairs over the course of three to 11 years by Hebrew University scientists concluded that prolonged exposure can increase the risk as much as 30 percent.

Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash 90
Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

For the first time, prolonged use of medication containing paracetamol or acetaminophen by pregnant women has been linked to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in their children, according to researchers at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Pregnant women are standardly prescribed acetaminophen or paracetamol as safe for pain or fever management during pregnancy.

However, new evidence gathered from 132,738 mother-child pairs over the course of three to 11 years by Dr. Ilan Matok and doctoral student Reem Maarwa at the Institute for Drug Research in Hebrew University Medical Faculty’s School of Pharmacy, in partnership with Dr. Amichai Perlman and Dr. Hagai Levine of Hebrew University and Hadassah University Medical Center, has concluded that acetaminophen and paracetamol have neurodisruptive properties that may affect the development of the fetal nervous system when given in low doses over an extended period.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, reveals that prolonged exposure to acetaminophen throughout pregnancy is associated with a 30 percent increase in risk for ADHD and a 20 percent increase in risk for ASD, in comparison to those who did not take the medication.

The researchers were quick to point out that the results should be interpreted with caution. They emphasized that pain and fever have negative effects on the developing fetus, and that pregnant women should not be anxious about limited use of acetaminophen or paracetamol to manage those symptoms, as the drug is still safe to use in the short term.

“[T]he observed increase in risk was small, and the existing studies have significant limitations,” said Matok. “While unnecessary use of any medication should be avoided in pregnancy, we believe our findings should not alter current practice, and women should not avoid use of short-term acetaminophen when clinically needed.”

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