Prenatal paracetamol exposure linked to autism and ADHD

Children exposed to paracetamol in the womb may be at greater risk of autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to findings from a recent study.

Paracetamol is used by 46-56% of pregnant women in developed countries. | GETTY IMAGES
Paracetamol is used by 46-56% of pregnant women in developed countries. | GETTY IMAGES

Previous research has suggested a connection between prenatal paracetamol exposure and worse cognitive performance, more behavioural problems, and symptoms of ASC and ADHD.

In this latest study, researchers utilised data from six European population-based birth cohorts to gather information on 73,881 children with either prenatal or postnatal exposure to paracetamol and at least one outcome (ASC or ADHD symptoms).

Children were classified as having postnatal exposure to paracetamol if they had taken any dose of the drug at any time up to 18 months of age. ASC and ADHD symptoms were assessed at four to 12 years of age via parent-reported questionnaires or linked hospital records.

Study findings

The researchers report that children exposed to paracetamol while in the womb were 19% more likely to develop ASC symptoms within the borderline/clinical range than those with no exposure (odds ratio [OR] 1.19). ASC symptoms were found to affect boys to a greater extent than girls (OR 1.28 vs 1.06, respectively).

Similarly, the odds of developing ADHD symptoms within the borderline/clinical range were 21% higher among children with prenatal exposure to paracetamol than in those with no exposure (OR 1.21), with boys and girls affected to a similar extent.

The researchers did not find any association between postnatal paracetamol exposure and either ASC or ADHD symptoms (OR 0.99 and 0.97, respectively).

They conclude that their findings are in alignment with previous recommendations indicating that while paracetamol use should not be suppressed in pregnant women or children, it should be used only when necessary.

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