For years, Tylenol has been considered one of the few “safe” over-the-counter pain medications for pregnant women. However, an interesting little fact about Tylenol remains – the difference between an effective dose and a dangerous dose is very small. It is for this reason that researchers continue to search for potential adverse effects for Tylenol use during pregnancy.
Previous studies have failed to find any connections between the most popular over-the-counter pain relief drug and premature birth or premature birth. However, a new study from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Oslo in Norway may have recently uncovered an adverse risk in a place where no other studies have looked before – in the children of mothers who took Tylenol during pregnancy.
“Our findings suggest that [acetaminophine] might not be as harmless as we think,” Ragnhild Eek Brandilstuen, leader of the study, told Reuters.
She and her coauthors made this statement after their study of 48,000 Norwegian children. During their 17th and 30th week of pregnancy, the mothers answered survey questions about medications used. They took the survey again six months after giving birth. Three years later, they were given a questionnaire about their child’s developmental milestones.
Overall, about four percent of women took Tylenol for at least 28 days of their pregnancy. The children born to these mothers seemed to have poorer motor skills than the children born to mothers who had used the drug fewer times during pregnancy. Tylenol-exposed children were also found to walk later, have poorer communication and language skills and more behavioral problems than the children who had not been exposed.
“Long-term use of [acetaminophen] increased the risk of behavior problems by 70 percent at age three,” Brandilsteum said. “That is considerable.”
What makes it even more “considerable” is the fact that many women take Tylenol for pain during pregnancy – it is considered “safe,” after all. And it just happens to be the most popular over-the-counter pain medication in the United States.
“Sixty-five percent of women will take this drug at some point during pregnancy,” Ann Z. Bauer, a doctoral candidate at the School of Health and Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.
“Some people just pop Tylenol when they have a headache,” Dr. Martha Herbert, an autism researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.
Brandilsteum says that it’s hard to define risks of a drug – any drug – for pregnant women and their children because rigorous testing and controlled testing aren’t ethical. So researchers really can’t do anything but observe women and their children in the real world. However, this study used a large group of women and children, and they looked for signs that the adverse effects could have come from another popular over-the-counter pain medication, ibuprofen.
Interestingly enough, the International Journal of Epidemiology published study didn’t find any developmental problems tied to ibuprofen use. This means that the developmental risks could only have come from acetaminophen use. It is for this reason that Brandilsteum, who has studied Tylenol and autism risk, feels that it’s important to do some further studies regarding Tylenol use and developmental issues in offspring. What’s more, Brandilsteum points out that the developmental effects could manifest differently later on or possibly even disappear altogether.
“Since this is the only study to show this, there is a need for further research to confirm or refute these results before too many implications are made,” she said.
Herbert, who has been studying the link between autism and Tylenol for years, agrees. She says that the developmental problems seen in these children seem to be rather similar symptoms of children on the autism spectrum. And even though none of the children in the study were diagnosed with autism prior to the age of three, it’s a similarity that can’t be confirmed or ignored.
“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” Herbert said, adding that she doesn’t like to pin “the cause of autism” on any one thing, since there are likely many factors involved.
“But for those people who wish to take precautions, this is something they can do,” she said. “With every choice you make, make the healthy choice.”
In a statement to Reuters Health, Johnson & Johnson’s spokeswoman, Jodie Wertheim, said that Tylenol “has an exceptional safety profile. As the authors note in the study, there are no prospective, randomized controlled studies demonstrating a casual link between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and adverse effects on child development.”
She added that Johnson & Johnson “always recommend[s] that consumers carefully read and follow label instructions when using any over the counter medication. In addition, our label notes if pregnant or breast-feeding, ask a health professional before use. Consumers who have medical concerns or questions about acetaminophen should contact their health care professional.”
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