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  • A new study found that acetaminophen may affect the chance of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder.
  • Researchers looked at blood from the umbilical cord to see how much acetaminophen an infant had been exposed to in utero.
  • As many as 70 percent of pregnant women have taken acetaminophen.

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday found that pregnant women who took acetaminophen — a pain reliever used in medications like Tylenol — had a greater chance of having a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

By testing the blood from umbilical cords, researchers from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health determined that fetuses exposed to acetaminophen had a two times greater chance of developing a developmental disorder.

These findings may affect many women, as up to 70 percent of pregnant women in the United States have reported taking acetaminophen during pregnancy.

However, this is one study and health experts agree that we need more research before we can definitely say taking acetaminophen during pregnancy can increase your child’s risk of having either autism or ADHD.

Autism and ADHD are likely caused by a mix of factors — such as genetics, family history, and environment — and it’s too soon to pinpoint a definitive cause-and-effect trigger.

“This is a surprising finding as most of the medical community considers Tylenol a very safe medication and, in fact, it may be,” says Ruth Milanaik, DO, the director of Neonatal Developmental Follow Up Programs at Cohen Children’s Medical Center. “While one study cannot be considered definitive proof of cause, this study is a large study that found that women who take acetaminophen during pregnancy have a significantly higher risk of having a child with a neurodevelopmental disorder.”

Anyone who is trying to conceive or currently pregnant should talk to their doctor about the risks and benefits of acetaminophen, and whether they recommend taking it during pregnancy.

To understand the health risks linked to acetaminophen exposure in the womb, researchers looked at the health data of 996 mother-infant pairings from the Boston Birth Cohort. The pairs, or dyads, had enrolled at birth and followed up between 1998 to 2018.

The researchers specifically studied umbilical cord blood samples to measure how much acetaminophen reached the fetus during pregnancy. They then looked at how many of the children went on to develop ADHD or autism down the road.

Of the group, approximately 26 percent of the children had ADHD. Nearly 7 percent had autism, and about 4 percent had both ADHD and autism.

Thirty percent had some other type of developmental condition, and 33 percent showed no signs of a developmental issue.

This isn’t the first study to look at the connection between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and ADHD and autism.

Two previous studies also identified an increased risk, but their findings were based on the mother’s recollection of how much acetaminophen she took.

Combined, those previous studies along with this new one suggest that taking acetaminophen during pregnancy is associated with ADHD and autism.

That said, it’s far too soon to say there is definitely a link. Both autism and ADHD are complex developmental disabilities that are likely caused from a multitude of factors.

Health experts agree that much more research is needed to further understand the relationship between prenatal acetaminophen use and the child’s risk of ADHD and autism.

“While the study found an association, it didn’t find a cause and effect relationship between exposure to acetaminophen & development of ADHD. It doesn’t prove that the acetaminophen actually causes ADHD,” says Dr. Mia Di Julio, an OB-GYN at Providence Saint Joseph Health Center.

Before taking acetaminophen or cutting it out entirely while pregnant, it’s best to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.

“During pregnancy, one should consult their doctor prior to taking any medication or herbal remedies. Over-the-counter medication and supplements should not immediately be assumed to be harmless and safe,” says Milanaik.

In some cases, the benefits of taking acetaminophen may outweigh the risks.

For example, severe chronic pain that goes untreated during pregnancy can lead to a slew of other health conditions, such as depression, high blood pressure, and anxiety, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A high fever, which is typically treated with acetaminophen, can also be harmful to the fetus if untreated. Previous evidence suggests a mother’s high fever in the first trimester can cause birth defects.

“Maternal fever in pregnancy is also associated with adverse fetal outcomes, including neural tube defects, cleft palate, and congenital heart defects. Treatment of maternal fever with acetaminophen may reduce these risks,” Di Julio said.

Taking acetaminophen in the short term shouldn’t pose serious risks, and in certain cases, it can provide much needed relief for the mother and fetus.

But, again, health experts recommend running it by your doctor first to ensure that’s the safest treatment method for you.

New research has found that pregnant women who took acetaminophen had a greater chance of having a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers looked at blood samples from the umbilical cord and determined that fetuses exposed to acetaminophen had a two times greater chance of developing a developmental disorder.

Though the findings are concerning, health experts say that it’s far too soon to say acetaminophen definitely contributes to the development of autism or ADHD, as much more research is needed.