Acetaminophen, the common painkiller used in more than 600 medications found in medicine cabinets everywhere, may pose a risk to pregnant women that could harm the healthy development of a fetus in the womb, according to a UMass Lowell researcher who led a newly published, years-long study on the issue.
UMass Lowell’s Ann Bauer, an epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow from Boxborough, led the effort to issue a consensus statement and research on the potential risks of the drug. The work, endorsed by nearly 100 heath care practitioners around the world, was published
last week by Nature Reviews Endocrinology.
Bauer shares her insights on this research in this piece available to media outlets for republication.
Q. You were the lead author of new research that recommends pregnant women avoid taking acetaminophen as much as possible until more is known about the painkiller’s effects on the development of the fetus in the womb. What led you to this conclusion?
A. We reviewed the research on acetaminophen use during pregnancy from 1995 through 2020 and found a growing body of evidence that suggests the medication may alter fetal development, increasing the risk of the improper development of the reproductive organs and of neurological disorders, primarily attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related behavioral abnormalities, but also autism spectrum disorder (ASD), language delays, decreased IQ and conduct disorders.
Acetaminophen is one of the most commonly used medications during pregnancy and its use has been increasing. Research suggests that up to 65% of U.S. women and 50% of women worldwide use acetaminophen. Because use is so common, if acetaminophen is responsible for even a small increase in individual risk, it could contribute substantially to these disorders in the overall population.
Q. What do you want pregnant women and their health care providers to know?
A. While we recognize that acetaminophen is an important medication and alternatives for treatment of high fever and severe pain are limited, based on our summary of this evidence, we call for precautionary action and recommend that pregnant women:
- Forgo acetaminophen use unless medically indicated;
- Minimize risk by using the lowest effective acetaminophen dose for the shortest possible time;
- Consult with their physician or pharmacist if uncertain whether use is indicated and before using on a long-term basis.
We also call for:
- Education to increase awareness of health professionals and pregnant women of these risks, so informed decisions can be made;
- A focused research effort to investigate these impacts further.
Q. Your research was presented as a “consensus statement.” Can you explain what that is and who endorsed it?
A. Our consensus statement is a document developed by a multidisciplinary, international panel that collaborated to review and summarize existing research and to make recommendations based on the evidence. The 13 authors solicited support for the statement from colleagues familiar with this area of research. An additional 78 scientists, clinicians and public health professionals from around the world signed onto to the statement.
Q. Do you have any other recommendations as a result of your research?
A. We urge both medical and industry authorities to review the research and issue acetaminophen-specific guidance. While this guidance may not be dramatically different than their current guidance, we believe acetaminophen-specific guidance is warranted, as awareness of this research among both physicians and patients is limited and the incorrect perception of complete safety of this medication persists.
Q. Now that this research is complete, what is next? Will you continue studying this topic?
A. Acetaminophen is also the medication most often given to newborns and infants. I am currently working with other researchers to design a study to investigate the effects of infant use of acetaminophen on neurodevelopment.