Can acetaminophen during pregnancy cause autism/ADHD in children?

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 6:25 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - A federal class action lawsuit claims Tylenol or acetaminophen, if taken during pregnancy could have neurological impacts on the baby. But not all medical professionals agree.

What is acetaminophen?

It’s a pain medication and fever reducer. It’s not just found in Tylenol, but several other pain relievers and cold medicines.

What’s the worry with pregnancy and autism?

In 2018 researchers reviewed seven studies involving 132,738 mothers and children. This analysis found mothers who took acetaminophen during pregnancy are associated with a 20%-30% increased risk of their child developing neurological disorders, such as autism and ADHD.

Do doctors endorse this meta-analysis?

It’s important to note that many of these studies looked at association and not causation. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reviewed the study and others. They concluded there was “no clear evidence that proves the direct relationship between acetaminophen and developmental issues.” For example, many studies included self-reporting evidence and not biological data of the mother or child. Researchers noted " The observed risks for ADHD and ASD may be due to additional environmental or medication exposure during pregnancy and after labor or to their combination rather than acetaminophen exposure alone.”

Other doctors disagree. Dr. Roberta Ness, MD, MPH, is the former Dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health and a scientific consultant.

“Before reading the peer-reviewed literature, I was skeptical,” Dr. Ness said. “But the data on this relationship is absolutely clear–acetaminophen is a cause of autism. This is not vaccines cause autism part two. I’ve spent my entire career exploring ways of protecting women’s health. Expecting mothers deserve to have all relevant data in order to make an informed decision for themselves.”

What about the FDA?

Currently the FDA has information on their website relating to acetaminophen and pregnancy, but it was last updated in 2015. Fox Carolina News reached out for an updated response. They gave this statement.

“The FDA continues to monitor and evaluate the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy and will update the public as new safety information becomes available. The agency regularly reviews the current literature and the possible risks of acetaminophen use during pregnancy. The benefits and risks of acetaminophen use during pregnancy should be carefully considered. Pregnant women should always consult with their health care professional before taking any prescription or nonprescription medicine.”

Does dosage matter?

The Cleveland Clinic noted one study that small amounts of acetaminophen during pregnancy, fewer than eight days, didn’t increase risk. Another study showed too much acetaminophen may increase one’s risk for autism or ADHD.

What if I have a fever?

Studies show having a fever during the first trimester of pregnancy can lead to birth defects in the child. Researchers at Duke Health found a fever can interfere with the development of the baby’s heart and jaw during the first trimester. Acetaminophen is a fever reducer.

What’s the latest on the lawsuits?

Johnson & Johnson released a statement to Fox Carolina News

“These lawsuits lack legal merit and scientific support. The misinformation campaign launched by the plaintiffs’ bar is irresponsible and could lead to serious health consequences for expecting parents. Pain and fever, for example, are conditions that have scientifically known and recognized potential to harm a human pregnancy if left untreated. Our product labels have directions on how much TYLENOL® to take and warnings on how long to treat these conditions before stopping use and consulting with a doctor. Our TYLENOL® label also warns pregnant people: ‘If pregnant or breast-feeding, ask a health professional before use.”

The judge in the case has laid out a discovery plan and is asking for medical experts from both sides to weigh in on the evidence. A decision on the case could come by the end of the year.

If you are pregnant and have any questions about medications, consult your doctor.