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Acetaminophen During Pregnancy Linked to Risk of ADHD, Autism

A new study follows others that suggest a link between the pain- and fever-reducer, best known at Tylenol, and ADHD and autism. But more research is needed, the study's author says.

pregnant woman

A new study suggests that taking acetaminophen, best known at Tylenol, while pregnant raises the risk of the child developing ADHD or autism.

The Johns Hopkins' study, which looked at the amount of the drug in umbilical-cord blood for nearly 1,000 babies, found the risk of ADHD was more than twice as high for children whose mothers took the pain-killer and fever-reducer later in their pregnancy. The link to autism was not as strong.

The researchers followed the children for 10 years and found nearly 26 percent had been diagnosed for ADHD by the time they were 9; 6.6 percent were diagnosed with autism; and 4.2 percent with both. The higher the amount of acetaminophen that was found in the umbilical cord blood, the more likely they were to have been found with these conditions.

"People in general believe Tylenol is benign, and it can be used safely for headaches, fever, aches, and pains," said Xiaobin Wang, a professor in Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health and the study's author. "Our study further supports the concerns raised by previous studies — that there is a link between Tylenol use during pregnancy and increased risk for autism or ADHD."

She said that none of the studies — including two previous ones that relied on mothers' recollection about if or when they took acetaminophen — prove a cause-and-effect.

"Until it is certain, parents and providers may want to consider the benefit and potential risk when making a decision on the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy or the peripartum period," she said.

Previous studies have not led the Food and Drug Administration to recommend pregnant women not take acetaminophen. Instead, it encourages women to talk to their doctor before taking any medication and note that there are risks for not treating pain during pregnancy, including depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.

While the number of children diagnosed with ADHD  and autism has increased dramatically in recent years, the reason for the increase remains unclear, although some observers believe more awareness and better testing might be partly responsilbe.  

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