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Pregnant women who take painkillers could be harming their unborn children, study finds

  • Findings add to body of evidence pregnant women should be wary of painkillers
  • Edinburgh scientists looked at the effects of certain painkillers on foetal samples
  • They found that after one week of being exposed to paracetamol, the number of egg-producing cells was reduced by 40 per cent 

Pregnant women who take painkillers may be harming the fertility of their unborn sons as well as daughters, researchers have warned.

Scientists have previously said ibuprofen and paracetamol reduce the number of cells that would eventually become ovaries.

But now a British team has discovered they have the same effect on cells that would later produce sperm in boys.

Two months ago, a study led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research exposed tissue from human ovaries to ibuprofen (stock image)

Two months ago, a study led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research exposed tissue from human ovaries to ibuprofen (stock image)

Painkillers may also affect the fertility of future generations by triggering changes in DNA structure which can be inherited, the research found.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that pregnant women should be wary of taking painkillers.

Current guidelines state they should avoid ibuprofen – due to its link with a range of complications. They can take paracetamol, but ideally at the lowest possible dose, for the shortest possible duration.

Aspirin is thought to be safe in low doses and some women are prescribed daily pills to reduce the risk of miscarriage.

In the latest study, Edinburgh scientists looked at the effects of paracetamol and ibuprofen on foetal samples of the testes and ovaries.

They found that after one week of being exposed to paracetamol, the number of egg-producing cells was reduced by 40 per cent.

The amount was the same as two to seven days of a woman taking the drug in pregnancy. They found egg cells either died or failed to grow and multiply at the normal rate (stock image)

The amount was the same as two to seven days of a woman taking the drug in pregnancy. They found egg cells either died or failed to grow and multiply at the normal rate (stock image)

The effect of ibuprofen was even greater and the number of egg-producing cells was almost half.

Scientists also found that paracetamol and ibuprofen reduced the number of sperm-producing cells by a quarter.

The British study is the first to examine the effects of painkillers on girls' and boys' fertility, and to try to identify what is happening to cells.

Dr Rod Mitchell, who led the research at the University of Edinburgh, said: 'We would encourage women to think carefully before taking painkillers in pregnancy and to follow existing guidelines – taking the lowest possible dose for the shortest time possible.'

The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, back up previous research.

Two months ago, a study led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research exposed tissue from human ovaries to ibuprofen.

The amount was the same as two to seven days of a woman taking the drug in pregnancy. They found egg cells either died or failed to grow and multiply at the normal rate.

One study on mice found that after a week of a human-equivalent dose of paracetamol, they had a third fewer egg-producing cells. Other research with rats has shown that painkillers administered in pregnancy led to a reduction in 'germ' cells. These are the cells which later develop into eggs in females or sperm in males.

Scientists believe painkillers affect molecules called prostaglandins, which are crucial to the production of eggs and sperm.

Dr Channa Jayasena, a senior lecturer in reproductive endocrinology at Imperial College London, said: 'This latest study raises the possibility that paracetamol and ibuprofen may reduce the growth of the germ cells which later become eggs or sperm in unborn babies.

'It is important to recognise that the study only looks at tissue in the lab, which limits its relevance in humans.'

Dr Patrick O'Brien, consultant obstetrician and spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said it was too early to draw definitive conclusions.

He added: 'Women should not be alarmed by the results of this study. Paracetamol is widely accepted as a safe painkiller for pregnant women to take. If this doesn't treat the pain, they should speak to their GP, midwife, or obstetrician.'

Dr Sarah Branch, of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the drugs watchdog, said: 'Women should avoid taking medicines during pregnancy unless absolutely necessary.'

Tags Health

ABOUT THE AUTHOR celebrityrave

Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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