Painkillers Affect Your Children in More Ways Than One

An update on how painkillers could negatively affect your unborn children and potential others to come

The questionable use of painkillers during pregnancy has already been recorded in multiple studies for their effect on infant fertility–typically, female fetuses. Guidelines suggest that paracetamol, more commonly known as acetaminophen, should be used as sparingly as possible and that ibuprofen shouldn’t be used at all during pregnancy.

However, researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently published a study that provides evidence that acetaminophen and ibuprofen should be avoided for their effect on male fetuses as well. Furthermore, the study suggested that acetaminophen and ibuprofen could affect human fetuses on a molecular level down to their DNA.


How do painkillers affect egg-producing cells?

Germ cells (not to be confused with germs) produce sperm and egg cells while in the womb. Researchers observed that treating ovaries with acetaminophen for one week lowered the percent of egg-producing cells by more than 40 percent. Even worse, ibuprofen nearly halved the number of egg-producing cells.

These percentages are particularly concerning because women are born with a set number of egg cells. If they are born with half the number of cells that could produce eggs, then they are at risk for early menopause.


How do painkillers affect sperm-producing cells?

For male fetus fertility experiments, researchers grafted mice with human fetal testicular tissue and exposed these tissues to painkillers. These grafts mimic how testes grow and function while developing in the womb. After a single day of treatment with human-equivalent doses of acetaminophen, the number of sperm-producing cells dropped by 17 percent. A week lowered the number to almost one-third fewer cells.

So women who take painkillers during pregnancy risk significantly reducing the number of eggs that their daughters will be born with as well as how much sperm their sons will be able to produce. Researchers suspect that the effect of painkillers on germ cells are caused by their effect on prostaglandins, which play major roles in both ovaries and testes because of their hormone-like properties.


How do painkillers affect DNA?

Painkillers mess with a fetus’ epigenetic marks. Epigenetic marks are like crossing guards in your DNA. While nearly all cells share the same DNA, epigenetic marks decide which genes are expressed in each cell. Altering epigenetic marks could affect small details such as hair color to more significant ones such as susceptibility to genetic diseases. Not only could painkillers affect your child but also generations of your progeny.

Think of this as an update on how painkillers could affect the development of your child during pregnancy. Dr. Rod Mitchell, who led the research at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, and other researchers still encourage women to follow basic guidelines by taking painkillers at minimum dosage only when necessary.