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(CNN) – Acetaminophen is supposed to be the safe option; most widely known as Tylenol, the drug is routinely prescribed by doctors for pregnant women in pain.
But a new large study out of Denmark calls this long-standing practice into question, finding that women using the common pain reliever during pregnancy are more likely to have children who go on to have ADHD.
But the biggest increase was among women using acetaminophen the most often, and later in pregnancy. Women who took the drug throughout half or more of their pregnancy were almost twice as likely to have a child with a severe form of ADHD.
"Any medication in pregnancy is something to avoid if you can," says Dr. Beate Ritz, professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "We have to be extremely careful what we expose a fetus to."
Ritz says acetaminophen may cause damage by disrupting hormones critical to fetal brain development, and alternatives to medication – like massages and baths – may be a better option for mild pain relief.
"You certainly should not take a pain medication just because you have maybe a slight headache," said Ritz.
"TYLENOL® has one of the most favorable safety profiles among over-the-counter pain relievers ... if pregnant or breastfeeding, the consumer should ask a health professional before use," Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson told CNN in a statement.
Bottom line, most women in the study who took acetaminophen did not go on to have children with ADHD. Experts say this is just one study, and more research needs to be done, and in the meantime, pregnant women should not replace acetaminophen with other pain medications and of course, they should talk to their doctors.