During pregnancy, women are usually careful about what they consume or do, so as to avoid harming the unborn baby in any way.
Despite being extremely cautious, expectant women may sometimes go through certain ailments or complications that result in immense physical pain.
In such circumstances, some usually rely on paracetamol, which is also known as acetaminophen, to get pain relief.
This is a commonly used non-prescription drug that can be purchased across the counter in most shops. The drug is considered to be largely safe for use during pregnancy to treat fever and pain.
But health experts are now calling on pregnant women to exert caution when using the medicine as it could lead to a myriad of development challenges in children.
Indeed, findings from a new study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology have linked the use of paracetamol during pregnancy to symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder in children.
The ASD is a developmental ailment that affects communication and behaviour. Although the condition can be diagnosed at any age, its symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
They include difficulty with communication or interaction with other people, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.
The symptoms associated with the disease can hurt the affected child's ability to function properly in school, work and other areas of life.
Attention-deficit disorder on the other hand, includes a combination of persistent problems such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour.
Children with the condition may also struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school.
There is no cure for autism or attention deficit disorder. But treatments – typically involving medications and behavioural interventions - can help alleviate some of the symptoms.
The new study, which was done by researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), found that children exposed to paracetamol before birth were 19 percent and 21 percent more likely to develop autism symptoms and suffer from attention deficit disorder problems respectively, compared to those who were not exposed to the drugs through their mothers during pregnancy.
"Our findings are consistent with previous research. We also found that prenatal exposure to paracetamol affects boys and girls in a similar way, as we observed practically no differences," said Sílvia Alemany, the lead author of the study and researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
During the study, the researchers analysed data from 73,881 children that had been exposed to paracetamol during pregnancy.
These were children who had also suffered from at least one symptom of autism or attention deficit disorder and related conditions.
About 14 percent to 56 percent of the mothers of the selected children reported taking paracetamol while pregnant. They were based in the following European countries: the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Spain.
"Considering all the evidence on the use of paracetamol and neurological development, we agree with previous recommendations indicating that while paracetamol should not be suppressed in pregnant women or children, it should be used only when necessary," stated Jordi Sunyer, another author of the study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
According to the study, the widespread use of paracetamol during pregnancy is largely due to the fact that there has not been any strong evidence associating the drug with birth defects or developmental challenges in children.
Aside from autism and attention deficit disorder, a growing body of research also suggests that the use of the drug among expectant women may actually increase the unborn child’s risk of developing asthma, having low immunity and suffering from compromised brain development.
Nevertheless, health experts that reacted to the study noted that further research is required to offer an in-depth understanding of the link between the intake of paracetamol in pregnancy and the associated development challenges in children.
Since paracetamol is an important drug for reducing high body temperatures, which can also have devastating effects on pregnancy, they state that affected women can still take it during such moments, as they are no other alternative medications.
“But they should first seek advice from health practitioners and avoid the long-term use of the medicine.”
Some of the natural fever reduction techniques that women can try out before opting for drugs include: taking a tepid birth or shower, keeping clothing and covers light, as well as drinking plenty of water and other cold beverages to cool down the body and prevent dehydration.