A box of Panadol pain relief tablets is seen at a pharmacy in a photo illustration in London July 24, 2013. Reuters/Paul Hackett

A new study has suggested that taking the common pain-relieving medication acetaminophen during pregnancy may be associated with increased risk of multiple behavioural problems in children. Acetaminophen is used by numerous pregnant women for pain and fever and is considered safe during pregnancy.

However the study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, revealed that prenatal use of the drug at 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy was associated with problems in children such as hyperactivity and conduct problems. Maternal acetaminophen use at 32 weeks of pregnancy was associated with a higher risk for emotional symptoms and total difficulties in children.

Despite the findings, the experts also added that the risk associated with not treating pain or fever during pregnancy must be weighed carefully “against any potential harm of acetaminophen to the offspring,” the authors state in a statement.

Evie Stergiakouli, Ph.D., of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, and coauthors analyzed data of nearly 8,000 pregnant women and their children and found that five percent of the children born to the participants had behavioural problems by the age of seven. However, University of Melbourne professor of pharmacology and therapeutics, Norman Saunders, said that the study cannot demonstrate any increased risk of behavioural difficulty in children, as claimed by the authors, reports SBS.

“They have not distinguished between different reasons why the patients were taking paracetamol. The authors did not analyse separately possible associations with the different reasons why the paracetamol had been taken; for example, this might have revealed an association with infections such as flu or cold, which would have been an alternative explanation for the problems identified in the children,” Saunders added.

He said that it is generally advisable for pregnant women to avoid taking drugs where reasonable. Very little is known about adverse effects of drugs on foetus and Saunders believes that simply based on the result of the study, it is not possible to call for greater restrictions on pregnant women using paracetamol.

The key message from the study would be to take paracetamol only when it absolutely necessary and after consulting the doctor. The duration should also be minimised.