Paracetamol, used in correct doses, has been considered safe to take in pregnancy by GPs and midwives.
But will that change, following a new study that links taking the painkiller from 18 weeks of pregnancy to an increased risk of hyperactivity?
No. The first thing to note is that this is one study, which is not going to change current medical advice overnight.
It’s important research, but it raises many questions and requires much more study.
So, despite the fact these findings have been shared widely on all the news sites today, experts and the study researchers themselves are urging pregnant women not to panic, and to keep taking paracetamol in the recommended doses if they need to while pregnant.
But in case you’ve read the headlines – we take a closer look at what it all means.
What the study says
Researchers at the University of Bristol looked at the records of 7,796 mothers who gave birth between 1991 and 1992 in the UK. They showed that just over half those mothers had used paracetamol at 18 weeks’ pregnant and 42% of them had used it at 32 weeks.
When tested at 7 years old, around 5% of the children born to these women were found to have hyperactivity issues.
Hyperactivity issues and ADHD is thought to occur in around 3.62% of boys and 0.85% of girls. These are UK figures – the percentages for America are much higher.
Therefore, the study suggests that taking paracetamol at 18 weeks’ and 32 weeks’ pregnant increase the risk of a child having “conduct problems” and hyperactivity symptoms. It also suggests that taking it at 32 weeks, increases the risk of a child having “emotional symptoms” by the age of 7.
No link was found between hyperactivity in children among the women taking paracetamol after birth.
What we don’t know
There were two key facts that the researchers were not able to find out:
- how much paracetamol the pregnant women took (the dosage)
- how long they took paracetamol for
As the current statistics show, there also appears to be a marked difference between boys and girls. Hyperactivity is reported in 4 times as many boys as girls. It’s not clear from the study, whether sex was taken into account.
Perhaps for these reasons many people commenting on the study have been reluctant to promote its significance.
What the experts say
Those carrying out the study have suggested that the reason for the link between paracetamol and hyperactivity could be because paracetamol interferes with a mechanism in the womb that affects brain development.
“Given that there is active brain development and growth during the third trimester, this finding could indicate that there are developmental periods when the brain is more sensitive to (paracetamol) exposure,” the authors suggest.
However, even those involved in the study have indicated that “the risk of not treating fever or pain during pregnancy should be carefully weighed against any potential harm to the offspring”.
Dr Tim Overton, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “It is important to highlight that from these results we cannot determine a direct link between paracetamol usage and any behavioural problems.
“Paracetamol is one of the most common medicines used to reduce a high temperature and ease pain; it is safe and is used routinely during all stages of pregnancy.
The bottom line
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists puts it succinctly: “Women should not be alarmed by the results of this study and we recommend that pregnant women continue to follow current guidance.”