Pregnancy and paracetamol – researchers flag developmental concerns

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  Last updated January 18, 2018 at 9:12 am

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Pregnant women may need to take less paracetamol, according to two recent findings that suggest adverse outcomes in both language development and fertility of babies.



Daughters and language delay


Research from the USA using data from Sweden shows a link between use of this common painkiller and language development delay in girls at 30 months old.


The study looked at data from 754 women who were between eight and 13 weeks pregnant when they entered the study. These participants reported how much paracetamol they had taken and when they had taken it, and their urine was tested for levels of the drug. Nearly 60 per cent of the participants had used paracetamol early in their pregnancy.


To measure language development, their children were later assessed by a nurse and the participants filled out a questionnaire regarding language milestones. At the age of 30 months, language delay was defined as using fewer than 50 words.


Out of all the children in the study, 10 per cent were experiencing language delay, and as was expected boys had a greater delay than girls. But, crucially, girls whose mothers took the highest levels of paracetamol in the study (more than half a dozen times) were nearly six times more likely to have language delay than their counterparts whose mothers did not take paracetamol.


The study’s lead author, Professor Shanna Swann from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai reflected that “given the prevalence of prenatal acetaminophen use and the importance of language development, our findings, if replicated, suggest that pregnant women should limit their use of this analgesic during pregnancy. It’s important for us to look at language development because it has shown to be predictive of other neurodevelopmental problems in children.”


The researchers plan to revisit the children for further study at seven years old.


Daughters and fertility


Recent findings from animal models suggest that paracetamol use in pregnancy may affect the future fertility of daughters. A team from Copenhagen University Hospital reviewed three different rodent studies that investigated this issue, and found a link between paracetamol use and female offspring born with fewer eggs. In both rodents and humans, females are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, so naturally less of this resource would cause fertility issues in adulthood.


The lead author, Dr David Kristensen, said that “Although this may not be a severe impairment to fertility, it is still of real concern since data from three different labs all independently found that paracetamol may disrupt female reproductive development in this way, which indicates further investigation is needed to establish how this affects human fertility.”


In this case though, Australian experts encourage women not to be overly concerned, including pharmacist and research fellow in the Robinson Research Institute at the University of Adelaide Dr Luke Grzeskowiak.


“The doses used in these small animal studies would be equivalent to women taking paracetamol at the maximum recommended dose for an entire 6 months of their pregnancy. This is not reflective of how paracetamol is commonly used in pregnancy. Most pregnant women would only take the odd dose for a short period of time,” he said.


“Based on this review there is no reason to change current treatment recommendations. At the end of the day, paracetamol is and remains the safest medication for treating pain and fever in pregnancy.”


The study regarding language development was published in European Psychiatry, and the study regarding fertility was published in Endocrine Connections.


Expert comments gathered by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC).




About the Author

Casey Harrigan
Casey Harrigan (@caseyharri) is a Contributing Editor for The Body and Culture on Australia’s Science Channel. Her academic background is in science communication, and her professional background is in science and factual television. Don’t get her started talking about sci fi movies, comedy, interesting animal facts, or Beyonce because she will never stop.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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