Using drug Tylenol during pregnancy linked to high autism, ADHD risk

In a new study, researchers found that exposure to acetaminophen in the womb may increase a child’s risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism.

Acetaminophen is the generic name for the drug Tylenol.

The research was conducted by a team at Johns Hopkins University.

People, in general, believe Tylenol is benign, and it can be used safely for headaches, fever, aches, and pains.

Previous studies have found a link between the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy and increased risks of adverse childhood outcomes, including ADHD (marked by hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention or controlling impulsive behavior) and autism.

Because these studies relied on mothers self-reporting their acetaminophen use, critics have said recall bias or lack an objective measure of in-utero exposure may have affected the findings.

As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration has refrained from making recommendations regarding the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy.

In the study, researchers analyzed data from the Boston Birth Cohort, a 20-year study of early life factors influencing pregnancy and child development.

They measured the biomarkers of acetaminophen and two of its metabolic byproducts in umbilical cord blood samples from 996 individual births.

Every sample analyzed contained some level of acetaminophen—confirming the drug’s widespread use during pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

The researchers then divided the children into three groups based on the amount of acetaminophen and its metabolites present in their cord blood samples.

They found that children whose cord blood samples contained the highest levels of acetaminophen had roughly a three times higher likelihood of receiving an ADHD or autism diagnosis later in childhood, compared to children with the lowest levels of acetaminophen in their cord blood.

The 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.

Although the study found a consistent association between biomarkers of acetaminophen and its metabolites in cord blood and child risk of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, people should not interpret that as Tylenol use causes these disorders.

More studies are clearly needed to further clarify the concern.

One author of the study is Xiaobin Wang, a professor in the population, family, and reproductive health department at the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins University.

The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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