The general advice for pregnant women is to limit the use of paracetamol where possible, and several studies have shown that the painkiller can harm the development of reproductive organs of male embryos. Following that advice, a new study has been released that has shown it could also harm the fertility of female embryos. The research has shown that paracetamol can interfere with the development of female reproductive, causing them to produce fewer eggs.

Dr David Kristensen, of Copenhagen University Hospital, said the finding is of “real concern” – particularly in Western countries where women are continuing to get pregnant later in life. He said “Although this may not be a severe impairment to fertility, it is still of real concern since data from three different labs all independently found that paracetamol may disrupt female reproductive development in this way, which indicates further investigation is needed to establish how this affects human fertility.”

This is the first study that’s been conducted into the effects of paracetamol, which is the only painkiller deemed safe for pregnant women, on female fertility. It’s well known to scientists that often exposure to certain chemicals can have a substantial impact on the development of the fetus, even though these effects are often not seen until well into adulthood. The researchers commented that further studies would need to be carried out in order to confirm whether paracetamol exposure during pregnancy causes long term fertility problems in adults.

It’s been suggested that the painkiller affects the development of germ cells that go onto mature into eggs and sperm in the embryos. It is also believed that it might affect the level of prostaglandins, which regulate ovulation, the induction of labour and the menstrual cycle in women. Dr Kristensen also noted that it can be difficult to establish links between medication taken during pregnancy and problems in later life. This research was carried out on rodents, and unfortunately scientists are still unable to carry out this type of experiment on humans.  

He said: “By combining epidemiological data from human studies with more experimental research on models, such as rodents, it may be possible to firmly establish this link and determine how it happens, so that pregnant women in pain can be successfully treated, without risk to their unborn children. As scientists, we are not in the position to make any medical recommendations and we would urge pregnant women in pain to consult with their general practitioner, midwife or pharmacist for professional advice.”

He added that “Paracetamol is used worldwide by to treat pain and fever during pregnancy. It is therefore of concern that prenatal exposure has been linked to subsequent reduced fertility in experimental studies. Such an effect, even if small from prenatal paracetamol exposure, is problematic in the Western world where the age at childbirth is continuously being delayed. To follow up on these initial experimental studies, epidemiological studies are needed.”

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