Pregnant Women Who Take OTC Pain Meds Risk Having Kids with Autism

Reaching for an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever might be the easiest thing to do when dealing with pain, fever, or even the flu, but pregnant women may want to think twice. New research has traced children’s autism spectrum disorder symptoms to their moms’ use of OTC painkillers.

Reaching for an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever might be the easiest thing to do when dealing with pain, fever, or even the flu, but pregnant women may want to think twice. New research has traced children’s autism spectrum disorder symptoms to their moms’ use of OTC painkillers.

To assess whether prenatal exposure to acetaminophen was adversely associated with neurodevelopmental outcomes in kids one to five years old, researchers conducted a cohort study of 2,644 mother-child pairs who were recruited during pregnancy.

During the study, women were asked if they’d every taken paracetamol during pregnancy, and if so, how often. For the kids, the researchers also administered computerized tests to measurer their attention and visual speed processing at ages one and five, respectively.

Results indicated that the children who were exposed to paracetamol during pregnancy scored lower on the tests for hyperactivity, impulsivity, visual speed, and their response time to visual stimulus.

The frequency of painkiller intake reportedly strengthened the adverse effects and increased the risk for autism.

According to study co-author Jordi Júlvez, MD, this correlation between a mother’s paracetamol use and her infant’s neurodevelopment could be attributed to the way the painkiller acts on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which are involved in various physiological processes like feelings of pain, appetite, and mood.

“Since these receptors normally help determine how neurons mature and connect with one another, paracetamol could alter these important processes. It can also affect the development of the immune system, or be directly toxic to some fetuses that may not have the same capacity as an adult to metabolize this drug, or by creating oxidative stress,” said Júlvez.

The researchers found that the male brain could be more vulnerable to any detrimental side effects of persistent paracetamol use, adding to the higher autism rates among boys.

The study authors had concluded, “Prenatal acetaminophen exposure was associated with a greater number of autism spectrum symptoms in males and showed adverse effects on attention-related outcomes for both genders. These associations seem to be dependent on the frequency of exposure.”

Despite their findings, the experts understand further research on dosage is necessary before they can issue recommendations on painkiller use during pregnancy.