Acetaminophen: Is it Really Your Safest Option?

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November 6, 2015

By Tori Bumgardner, PharmD Student Cedarville University

Acetaminophen has long been a popular over-the-counter product used to treat pain and fever in both adults and children (1). It is recommended to women as the preferred pain medication while pregnant. The FDA has been approved for dosing in individuals of all ages, from infants to adults, who may be suffering from pain or fevers (2). While it is known that acetaminophen causes liver damage to people who take it at high doses for an extended period of time, recent studies have investigated the possibility that it can lead to dangerous levels of toxins in the body, potentially increasing the risk of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and even autism (3,4). The buildup occurs when one of the metabolites of acetaminophen, N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI), inhibits the detoxification of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the body (5). When ROS builds up, inflammation can occur, giving it the potential to cause ADHD or autism. Additionally, a meta-analysis was conducted looking at the correlation between use of acetaminophen during pregnancy and occurrence of asthma in offspring (6). The study found that mothers who used acetaminophen while pregnant increased the risk of their child developing asthma. This blog post will review the recent evidence on the dangers associated with pre-natal exposure to acetaminophen.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A study from 2014 examined the relationship between mothers who took acetaminophen during pregnancy and the subsequent occurrence of ADHD in their children (4). In this study, 1714 European children were followed for 11 years and their mothers were surveyed when the children were newborn, 1, 3.5, 7, and 11 years old. For the newborn interview, information on the mothers’ pregnancy was collected. The other interviews were focused on the child, paying special attention to cognitive development, behavior, and physical activity. In the final interview, at age 11, the children also completed and interview that asked about topics like behavior, emotions, and self-esteem. The investigators examined the relationships between different drugs that were taken during pregnancy with the results of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire that were completed throughout the study. Interestingly, it was found that the group who used acetaminophen showed higher difficulties and lower social scores. The findings of this study indicate that acetaminophen use during pregnancy is correlated with higher rates of ADHD in children. Limitations to the study included a low follow-up rate, lack of generalization since the study was specific to European women and their children, and a possibility of selection bias if both parents were already predisposed to ADHD. Authors concede that additional research should be done to determine the actual risks associated with exposing children to acetaminophen at young ages. Other data found that children whose mothers used acetaminophen while pregnant had a higher incidence of behavior problems and hyperkinetic disorders (HKDs) like ADHD during a follow up when the children were seven years old (7). Due to the safety concern in allowing pregnant women to continue taking acetaminophen, since research seems to suggest its harm, the FDA has begun looking into the issue (8).

Though research is not yet conclusive, they encourage women to talk to their healthcare providers before taking anything.While it is always a good recommendation to talk to a doctor first, what does that leave women to use when they are in pain, but don’t have time to see or call the doctor, and are left with no options to provide relief? There are certainly alternatives available that don’t include drugs and can help relieve pain caused by headaches and aching in other parts of the body. Sometimes headaches are caused by stress and can be helped by practicing relaxation through deep-breathing, yoga, or any other technique that is convenient and will divert their mind off stress-inducing stimulation (9). A regular sleeping schedule is also important and exercise can help to relieve headaches, so taking a nap or a walk are both ways to relieve stress and pain without taking medication. Pain in other parts of the body may be troublesome, but a gentle massage or an external, topical pain relief product can be used to help establish comfort.

The data is still uncertain on the magnitude of risk with acetaminophen use in pregnant women, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid use if possible. At the end of the day, the question that is left is one of risk versus benefit. Since nothing is conclusive about the danger that acetaminophen may have on babies, is it ultimately worth the risk to use it as a quick fix for a couple of hours free of pain?

 

References:

  1. Medline Plus: Trusted Health Information for You Web site. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a681004.html. Published 08-15-2014. Updated 2014. Accessed October 16, 2015.
  2. DailyMed (package inserts). National Institutes of Health; National Library of Medicine.  http://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/ (accessed October 26, 2015).
  3. Jennifer Margulis PD. Could A common painkiller cause brain inflammation — and even autism — in children? http://reset.me/story/could-a-common-painkiller-cause-brain-inflammation-and-even-autism-in-children/. Published 09-08-2015. Updated 2015. Accessed 10-16-2015.
  4. Thompson JMD, Waldie KE, Wall CR, Murphy R, Mitchell EA, the ABC study group. Associations between Acetaminophen Use during Pregnancy and ADHD Symptoms Measured at Ages 7 and 11 Years. Hashimoto K, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(9):e108210. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108210.
  5. Shaw W. Evidence that increased acetaminophen use in genetically vulnerable children appears to be a major cause of the epidemics of autism, attention deficit with hyperactivity, and asthma. Journal of Restorative Medicine. 2013;2:1. Accessed October 26, 2015. doi: 10.14200/jrm.2013.2.0101.
  6. Cheelo M, Lodge CJ, Dharmage SC, et al. Paracetamol exposure in pregnancy and early childhood and development of childhood asthma: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Dis Child. 2015;100(1):81.
  7. Liew Z, Ritz B, Rebordosa C, Lee P,Olsen J. Acetaminophen use during pregnancy, behavioral problems, and hyperkinetic disorders. JAMA Pediatrics. 2014;168(4):313-320.
  8. FDA drug safety communication: FDA has reviewed possible risks of pain medicine use during pregnancy. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm429117.htm. Published 01-09-2015. Updated 2015. Accessed October 16, 2015.
  9. Krinsky D, Ferreri S, Hemstreet B, et al. Headache. In: Young L, ed. Handbook of nonprescription drugs: An interactive approach to self-care. 18th ed. Washington, DC: American Pharmacists Association; 2015:65-83-95. Accessed 10-16-2015.

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Posted in: Pain/Arthritis, Pediatrics, Preventative Health, Women's Health