Pregnancy is a sensitive time for mother and child because some drugs cross the placental barrier, and adverse effects on fetal development may not be recognized immediately. Recently, universal concern surrounds the potential link between prenatal drug exposure and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children.
Can Autism Be Caused By Drugs During Pregnancy?
ASD is a complex developmental condition characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. While genetic and environmental factors are believed to contribute to ASD, the exact causes are still not completely understood. As research continues to explore potential triggers, some studies revealed a strong correlation between the use of drugs during pregnancy and an increased risk of autism in children.
In this post, we will explore the scientific evidence that supports the association between prenatal drug exposure and an increased risk of autism.
Prenatal Drug Exposure And Autism Risk
Because of the growing consensus that drugs previously labeled as safe during pregnancy can alter the development of the fetus, pregnant women should always consult with their healthcare providers before using any medications. This is to ensure that the mom and baby are safe. Some of the drugs that may increase the risk for ASD include the following:
1. Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs
Acetaminophen, or paracetamol, is a widely used OTC pain reliever and fever reducer. Some studies have raised concerns about its potential impact on fetal brain development, especially since over half of pregnant women in developing countries trust this drug to safely relieve their pain and fever symptoms.
Research has suggested that prolonged use of Tylenol, considered the most popular acetaminophen, during pregnancy may be linked to an increased risk of ASD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). High dosage and prolonged acetaminophen use increase the chances of developing these disorders that manifest in early childhood.
Research on Tylenol pregnancy and autism, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, showed that by the time the children with umbilical cord levels of acetaminophen reached 8.9 years old:
- 25.8% were diagnosed with ADHD
- 6.6% were diagnosed with ASD
- 4.2% were diagnosed with both ADHD and ASD
Additionally, those with the highest cord levels of acetaminophen and its two by-products were 3.62 times more likely to develop ASD and 2.86 times more likely to have ADHD.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, are commonly used OTC medications for pain relief and inflammation reduction. Although these medications are widely considered safe for short-term use, their safety during pregnancy remains controversial. Some studies have suggested that using NSAIDs during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester, can lead to a range of adverse effects on the developing fetus, including an increased risk of ASD.
NIH research revealed that taking NSAIDs increased the chances of the affected child developing an Intellectual Disability (ID) by 26% but could not establish unequivocally the same for ASD.
Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine and loratadine, are commonly used OTC medications for treating allergies and cold symptoms. These are also used to treat nausea and vomiting and are found in nasal decongestants. Although antihistamines are considered safe during pregnancy, a few studies have raised concerns about their potential impact on fetal brain development.
One study found that mothers taking beta 2 adrenergic receptors like albuterol, levalbuterol, metaproterenol, and terbutaline for asthma may cause neurodevelopmental changes in the fetus. This, in turn, increases the risk for ASD. However, exposure to allergens by the mother and their subsequent cascade of reactions can also alter the fetus’s brain development. It becomes a catch-22 situation, and while the overall risk remains low, it is more prudent to treat only as needed and to use alternative medication when possible.
Doctors caution against taking antihistamines and antihistamines with decongestants by mouth or spray in the first trimester because of the higher incidence of congenital disabilities and other disorders.
2. Prescription Medications
Some moms have conditions that would require treatment. For instance, pregnant women are prone to developing yeast infections. Some moms will also experience gestational diabetes or hypertension that is pregnancy-related. Some women may have diabetes, epilepsy, or asthma—conditions that would require maintenance and thus are unavoidable.
Unfortunately, certain prescription medications have been linked to an increased risk of autism in their offspring. One example is valproate, an antiepileptic drug used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder.
Studies have shown that children exposed to valproate in utero are significantly more likely to develop autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
3. Recreational Or Prohibited Drugs
Using illicit drugs during pregnancy, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids can harm the developing fetus. Research has suggested that prenatal exposure to these substances can lead to cognitive, behavioral, and developmental issues, including an increased risk of ASD.
In addition, children exposed to opioids in utero have been reported to exhibit increased rates of ASD. Similarly, research has also found that prenatal exposure to cannabis and stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamine, is associated with adverse effects on cognitive development.
Prenatal Drug Exposure And Autism: Conclusion
While the exact mechanisms underlying the relationship between prenatal drug exposure and autism are still being investigated, the evidence suggests that exposure to certain substances during pregnancy can increase the risk of a child developing ASD.
It is crucial for pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant to be aware of the potential risks associated with drug use during pregnancy. They must consult with healthcare professionals to make informed decisions about their health and the well-being of their children.