Tylenol and Pregnancy – Why the Media Can be Misleading

Mar 12, 2014 | Healthy Living | 0 comments

If you’ve been reading the news over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed several articles questioning whether Tylenol is safe for pregnant women to take.  This started when the February 24, 2014 issue of JAMA Pediatrics published an article entitled “Acetaminophen Use During Pregnancy, Behavioral Problems, and Hyperkinetic Disorders”.  This was morphed by the media into articles proclaiming:

  • “Children born to women who used the painkiller acetaminophen during pregnancy may have an increased risk of developing behavioral problems like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to new research.” (Fox News)
  • Acetaminophen use in pregnancy may be linked to ADHD (USA Today)
  • “The “safest” drug for relieving aches and pains, lowering fever and treating headaches in pregnancy may not be so safe after all, according to a new report — it may raise the risk of ADHD and similar disorders in their children.” (NBC News)


I realize that I am a Plastic Surgeon, and obstetrics is not my area of expertise. But these headlines bring up an important point: thanks to modern media and news sources, we are inundated by medical information on a daily basis.  The way this information is presented is often skewed, erroneous, or sensationalistic, leaving it up to the average consumer to sort through and find the truth.  The recent news stories on Tylenol in pregnancy highlight this fact.  The article published in JAMA did demonstrate a correlation between Tylenol use and ADHD- but basic statistics knowledge tells us that correlation between two things does not  mean that one causes the other.

So what did this study actually show?  It showed that mothers who take Tylenol during pregnancy have children with a higher incidence of behavioral disorders such as ADHD.  Does this mean that taking Tylenol caused the ADHD?  No.  It does not.  And many of the articles that I referred to above were very careful to make this point.  The USA Today article specifically states “Experts say the study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship and more study is needed.”  Other news sources, however, skew the facts a bit to make for a more interesting story.  For example, the article on NBC News used phrasing that made it seem as if there is a direct cause and effect relationship.  The headline on the article states: “Pain Pill in Pregnancy May Raise Child’s ADHD Risk, Study Finds.” But this is wrong.  This is not what the study found at all.

So how do you navigate your way through such confusing information?  Any pregnant woman reading these news stories is bound to wonder whether she can use Tylenol or not.  And the stories themselves often don’t make it very clear.  So here are my recommendations:

  1. Check with more than one news source, and read the article carefully.  We’ve shown here that the media takes liberties with the way things are phrased, which can drastically change the meaning and implications.  Checking with a couple of different sources can help give you a more accurate picture.
  2. When it comes to your health, don’t make drastic changes to your behavior based on popular media.  Trying to keep up with the latest recommendations in terms of diet, exercise, or even medications is simply not possible.
  3. Ask your doctor.  In the above example, some of the news stories made it sound as if pregnant women should stop taking Tylenol immediately.  But deciding not to take Tylenol because of the results of a single study is a fairly drastic decision.  After all, Tylenol is the only over-the-counter pain medication considered safe in pregnancy.  If you ask your physician his or her recommendations, you will likely get a very different answer.

Have you read a health or medical news article that you found confusing or misleading?


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