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Experts Poke Holes in Study That Links Acetaminophen Use to ADHD in Children

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

Can taking acetaminophen during a woman's pregnancy increase her child's risk for ADHD? Experts don't agree on the answer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that nearly hundreds of over-the-counter medicines—including those used for fever or pain relief—contain acetaminophen. And 65 percent of pregnant women are reaching for those types of medication, such as Tylenol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, Eivind Ystrøm, lead author of a new study published in the journal Pediatrics and a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, asserts that "using acetaminophen for 29 days or more during pregnancy gave a 220 percent increase in risk for ADHD in the child."

This was after taking medical conditions and risk for ADHD in the family into account, Ystrøm added.

Although the report claims that pregnant women who need medicine for fever or pain relief "should not refrain from short-term acetaminophen use," the findings also suggest that pregnant women who require "continuous acetaminophen for a longer period" should consult with their physicians.

Further results indicated that the use of acetaminophen by pregnant women for less than eight days was associated with a decreased risk of ADHD in offspring. But experts in the field aren't exactly ready to jump onboard with these findings.

Dr. Alison G. Cahill, a member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' committee on obstetric practice, and Dr. Max Wiznitzer, co-chairman of the professional advisory board for the nonprofit Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, both agree that their numbers "don’t make biological sense."

Wiznitzer pointed out that other learning and language disorders—which can often look like ADHD on paper—might have caused inaccuracies.

"The other thing we expect to see is a dose-response relationship, where an increasing dose would relate to a worsening risk or worsening severity of that disease," Cahill told CNN. This, however, wasn't seen in the study.

According to reports, researchers failed to take into account the dosage of acetaminophen administered. Instead, they used a survey in which patients self-reported the number of days, and Cahill said this is "not informative from a scientific perspective."

"You have to be careful about distance recall," adds Wiznitzer, noting that people often have distorted recollections of their behavior from even a week ago.

"Women should not be afraid of using acetaminophen, especially if it's their doctor's recommendation," he said. "The data here is not strong enough to support the conclusion."

Bottom line: If you’re worried about safety, talk to your doctor.

Cahill, who is also chief of maternal fetal medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, said that “a board-certified provider” is really the best person to advise pregnant women on which medications are safe to take during pregnancy.

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