Via: wavebreakmedia | Shutterstock

Could A Common Painkiller Cause Brain Inflammation — And Even Autism — In Children?

Via: wavebreakmedia | Shutterstock


by Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.

on September 8, 2015

What if it’s acetaminophen, NOT vaccines? Researchers tie America’s most popular painkiller to brain inflammation and autism.

My husband’s arms are sore. His joints are stiff. Just home from pick-up basketball, he heads to the medicine cabinet to find relief from all his aches and pains. Should he, like billions of others, take America’s most popular painkiller, acetaminophen? What about when our daughter is teething, or just after a vaccine? Should we give her Infants’ Tylenol to relieve the pain?

In an article on Vox last month, health reporter Julia Belluz documents myriad problems with acetaminophen, known in Europe as paracetamol/paracetamolo and in America by its brand name, Tylenol. Belluz points out that acetaminophen is the leading cause of liver failure and that randomized studies show that it does not work as well as other methods for knee pain, back pain, or osteoarthritis. Despite her evidence-based explanation of both its toxicity and ineffectiveness, Belluz reaches the nonsensical conclusion that acetaminophen is somehow safe for babies.

Via: Zdenka Darula | Shutterstock

Via: Zdenka Darula | Shutterstock

Yet we know that toxic substances like alcohol and drugs are much more dangerous for children than adults, and that an infant’s developing brain is particularly sensitive to toxicity.

Laboratory studies show acetaminophen causes cell death. Epidemiological studies link this drug to attention disorders and autism. Taken together, a growing body of scientific literature that Vox completely and irresponsibly ignores shows that pregnant women, infants, and small children should stay far, far away from acetaminophen.

The active ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen, is found in more than 600 drugs, including many over-the-counter medications targeted at children (Infants’ Tylenol, Children’s Mucinex, and Little Remedies for Fevers), as well as NyQuil and Alka-Seltzer Plus.

Doctors often recommend dosing children with acetaminophen before they get routine vaccines, and then tell parents to give them more if the baby spikes a fever or has a reaction at the injection site.

The Vox article references a Cochrane report from 13 years ago to show acetaminophen is safe for babies. Cochrane, a non-profit institute aimed at promoting better health through evidence-based medical practice, is considered the gold standard when it comes to unbiased science. Based in the United Kingdom, it does not accept money from pharmaceutical companies. If Cochrane says acetaminophen is safe for children, despite its documented toxicity in adults, then it must be okay.

Disaster averted.

My doctor was not crazy when he told me to give the baby acetaminophen.



The Cochrane report does not actually say that acetaminophen is safe for children. It concludes that, “Trial evidence that paracetamol has a superior antipyretic effect than placebo is inconclusive,” and “Data on adverse events in these trials were limited.” Since it was published in 2002, several studies have suggested a cause and effect relationship between acetaminophen and brain disorders.

A 2008 study led by Stephen Schultz, who earned his Ph.D. in public health epidemiology at the University of California at San Diego, after working as a dentist for 21 years, found that children given acetaminophen after vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella developed autism eight times as often as children given ibuprofen.

Schultz’s was a small study. But his findings dovetail with a more recent study involving more than 48,000 Norwegians that associates the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy with developmental problems — including attention deficits and aggression — in children at age three. This study, too, points toward the negative effects of acetaminophen on the developing human brain.

In another study of over 64,000 pregnant women in Denmark, the use of acetaminophen in pregnancy was linked to higher risks of severe attention deficit disorders in their children. The longer they used the acetaminophen, the higher the risk of behavioral and brain problems.

Yet another recent study links autism with acetaminophen. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts found that uncircumcised males have five times lower rates of autism than circumcised males. The scientists don’t blame circumcision, which they hypothesize is corollary. Instead they question whether pain relief drugs are to blame, concluding that there is a “need for formal study of the role of paracetamol [acetaminophen] in autism.”

An Epidemic Of Brain Disorders Among America’s Children

In America today, according to the CDC, 1 in every 42 American boys and 1 in every 189 American girls has an autism spectrum disorder.

“When I graduated my residency program it was 1 in 10,000,” says David Traver, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Foster City, California, who specializes in treating children with special needs, “that was 1988.”

Though some doctors and researchers insist that the rise in autism is due to changes in diagnostic criteria and increased awareness, a systematic analysis of the numbers by Stanford-trained Cynthia Nevison, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Colorado, has shown that changes in diagnostic criteria only account for 20-25 percent of the increase in autism. In other words, the epidemic of autism and other brain disorders among America’s children is real.

“Autism is clearly on the rise,” insists Traver. “It’s here. We can argue whether it’s severe, moderate, or mild. But what are we doing about this? There is a generation of children that are suffering as we intellectually weight lift.”

Via:  Karramba Production | Shutterstock

Via: Karramba Production | Shutterstock

If Acetaminophen Is Triggering Autism, What’s The Mechanism?

William Shaw, Ph.D., a clinical chemist who previously worked for the CDC, points out that the steep incline in autism, as well as attention deficit disorders and asthma, coincide with the popular use of acetaminophen in the place of aspirin in the United States. But does a cause and effect relationship between acetaminophen and autism make sense from a biological, cellular, or biochemical point of view?

Kevin Becker, Ph.D., the director of a section at the prestigious National Institutes of Health, has described potential molecular mechanisms by which autism might be induced by acetaminophen. Schultz has also described a potential mechanism.

The most detailed explanation of acetaminophen causing autism comes from biochemist William Shaw. He explains that acetaminophen can temporarily inhibit our body’s ability to process toxins, depleting glutathione levels (think of glutathione as nature’s mop), resulting essentially in a toxic wash of the body, including the brain. Simply put: yes, biochemically acetaminophen could cause autism.

The gender disparity in autism has long puzzled scientists: why are so many more boys than girls affected? This study in rats shows, indeed, that there is gender bias at work: male rats are much more susceptible to the toxic effects of acetaminophen than females.

William Parker, Ph.D., an expert on immunology and an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center, has spent over a decade working on immune diseases but has not been involved with any of these studies. When I reached him by phone at his lab at the Department of Surgery, Parker tells me that autism “looks, feels, and smells just like an inflammatory disease of Western culture.”

“It’s all part and parcel of the same issue,” Parker explains. “Inflammation can be caused by a number of factors in modern society, and it leads to disease under the right conditions. With autism, it seems that oxidative stress, a consequence of inflammation, is a necessary factor. A wide range of modern chemicals — especially acetaminophen — can increase oxidative stress.”

Are Brain Disorders Triggered By Vaccines?

There are several potential culprits blamed for causing inflammatory diseases and brain abnormalities, including exposure to pesticides, prenatal ultrasounds, and the current childhood vaccination schedule, which recommends two vaccines during pregnancy, as well as a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease (hepatitis B) in the first few hours of every American newborn’s life.

Hundreds of thousands of parents, like this mom, blame their child’s brain damage on vaccines, noticing that an otherwise normally developing child began regressing into autism after a round of shots.

But Parker, who has no children himself, is most concerned with acetaminophen. He hypothesizes that if we stop using this popular painkiller (as long as we don’t replace it with anything equally as toxic), we will see a sharp decline in autism.

“Based on available data, it looks like eliminating acetaminophen from the equation will be enough to dramatically reduce autism,” Parker insists.

Via: misfire_asia | Shutterstock

Via: misfire_asia | Shutterstock

Doctors Weigh In: Avoid Acetaminophen For Babies And Children

Dr. Traver, the specialist in autism, recommends his patients avoid acetaminophen and believes the drug’s connection to autism should be tested further. “The uninformed and indiscriminate administration of acetaminophen has been shown to yield adverse results in certain populations,” Traver explains via Skype. “This needs to be understood and appreciated. We need to keep this in mind.”

At the same time, Traver cautions against laying too much blame on acetaminophen. “It’s not that you never use it or that you always use it. Maybe it’s needed for children with an allergy to ibuprofen. It’s not satanic and Motrin is [not] angelic. I’m not going to say that.”

Robert Sears, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Capistrano Beach, California, a founder of the Immunity Education Group, and author of The Autism Book, agrees. Sears says he used to equally recommend acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and fever relief but now primarily recommends ibuprofen.

“A few years ago, I became aware of some potential concerns that acetaminophen may reduce glutathione production,” Sears explains. “Glutathione is a natural antioxidant, which helps the body handle toxins. It would therefore not make much sense to give infants a medication which may reduce the ability to handle some of the chemical ingredients in vaccines.”

Maya Shetreat-Klein, M.D., an integrative pediatric neurologist based in New York City, actively discourages parents from giving acetaminophen to children. “Tylenol is most commonly used for fever, which is a healthy immune response to illness that only rarely should be suppressed,” Shetreat-Klein explains via email. “Tylenol also impairs cellular detoxification… Our bodies particularly need this when we are sick or inflamed, so impairing glutathione is the opposite of what you want to do.”

Pregnant Women Should Avoid Acetaminophen Too

Cindy Schneider, M.D., the medical director for the Center for Autism Research and Education based in Phoenix, Arizona, and a former obstetrician and gynecologist, cautions pregnant women against using acetaminophen. “No medication can be considered completely safe during pregnancy. The fact that a drug is available over the counter does not necessarily mean that it carries fewer risks to a pregnant woman or her baby than those that are only available by prescription,” explains Schneider.

“There appears to be an association between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and an increased incidence of maternal blood clots, pulmonary embolism, preterm labor, and preeclampsia. There is considerable risk to the developing fetus as well. Both animal and human studies have documented an increase in genital birth defects in males exposed to acetaminophen during pregnancy, and defects of the heart, abdominal wall, and face have also been reported.”

Schneider says pregnant women should not be misled by obstetricians or doctors who insist the drug is safe for them or their babies. “The fact that thousands of obstetricians routinely recommend acetaminophen for headaches, backaches, fevers, and other ailments in pregnancy does not guarantee that it can be taken without risk,” she insists. “Most are unaware of the developing science on this subject.”

Duke University’s William Parker believes more studies are urgently needed to determine if there really is a direct link between acetaminophen use and autism.

So while we wait for the science, what can we do?

1. Make sure your hospital does not administer acetaminophen to your baby. It is their drug of choice for babies undergoing a wide range of procedures, from circumcision to vaccination.

2. Don’t be so fast to use drugs to treat your child’s every cough. You’ll be surprised at how well a bowl of old-fashioned chicken soup, rest, and some attention from mom or dad can heal mild illnesses.

3. Seek alternatives to acetaminophen. Our family has had good luck treating headaches with a cold washcloth to the forehead, a rest on the couch with a favorite stuffed bear, and a quarter teaspoon of ground turmeric (a common spice used in Indian cooking and a powerful anti-inflammatory recommended by this M.D.) in a big glass of water or fresh juice.

My husband opted for yoga stretching to help his muscles release the built-up lactic acid. He used an ice pack on the sorer muscles and joints. He also took 500 mg of quercetin, a plant-derived anti-inflammatory, and a half a teaspoon of turmeric in a big glass of filtered water. He felt better right away.


Jennifer Margulis

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, a Fulbright grantee, and the author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner 2015). She is currently writing a comprehensive guide to children’s health with Paul Thomas, M.D., forthcoming from Ballantine.



  • Peter Good

    Steve Schultz’s PhD dissertation was a paper called National Acetaminophen Sales and Autistic Disorder in California. Schultz found that when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the public in 1980 that aspirin might cause Reye’s syndrome in children, Tylenol sales increased all over the country, followed by an increase in the number of children with autism in California.

    Schultz’s conclusion that our epidemic of autism began in 1980 was corroborated by biochemist Jon Pangborn’s conclusion from parents’ reports to the Autism Research Institute that our epidemic began in 1980. Furthermore, in his Tylenol paper Shaw noted that Cuba’s incidence of autism is only 1/300th of ours in the U.S – 1 in 20,000 – although Cuba vaccinates ALL their children, especially against measles. What’s the difference, according to Shaw? Cuba prohibits over-the-counter acetaminophen, and only rarely allows it to be prescribed for vaccinations, because it’s limited by the embargo.

    I’ve reposted National Acetaminophen Sales on my site: Don’t miss Did acetaminophen provoke the autism epidemic?

    Peter Good
    Autism Studies
    La Pine, OR

  • autismepi

    There is some recent research on acetaminophen worth mentioning:

    1) The findings of an association between prenatal acetaminophen and ADHD
    symptoms were replicated in a New Zealand prospective cohort study

    2) A new Cochrane review of acetaminophen for newborns concluded “Paracetamol (acetaminophen) should not be used for painful procedures given its lack of efficacy and its potential adverse effects”.

    3) Through a novel methodology, researchers have shown that acetaminophen may be toxic at lower doses than previously believed.

    4) A number of studies have suggested that acetaminophen may
    be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor. One recent study suggested that exposure
    to a therapeutic dose of acetaminophen for 7 days significantly reduced plasma testosterone (by 45%)

    In a study of a mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals in rat brains it was found that the mixture had a strong impact on genes linked to increased risk of autism. Further, it was found that the effects of acetaminophen on individual genes were almost identical to the mixture suggesting that acetaminophen may exert an important influence on effects of
    the mixture.

  • Innocent Moose

    I was Asperger long before I ever had Tylenol. It may be one factor, but it is not the only factor.

    Also, I would not trade my Aspergers for all the money in Swiss Banks. Einstein was believed to have been on the Autism spectrum, Tesla, Edison and DaVinci likewise with Aspergers. While I have little interest in socializing, my skills and aptitudes in more rational pursuits and my compelling interests have given me a rich life beyond the imaginings of many.

  • Just M.

    I have an idea: How about we stop cutting chunks of skin off from infants’ fucking cocks. Presto, problem solved. Weird-ass psychopaths.

  • Chris Allen

    We need a corollary report on ibuprofen. I can think of one issue right off the top of my head: ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory. “Good!” you might say, but wait: there’s a crucial piece of evidence missing here that many don’t know.

    Ibuprofen (and other anti-inflammatory drugs) can affect your digestive system, sometimes severely.

    See, I recently learned (after a bout of problems with strong ibuprofen use for tooth extraction pain) that our stomach linings are protected by natural inflammatory chemicals; without them, the very strong acid in the stomach can and will eat away at that lining, causing ulcers and bleeding ulcers.

    There have also been studies on a couple of common intestinal bacteria that, under the right conditions, can become parasitic in the body, causing irritable bowel syndrome and other issues, some of them quite severe and chronic. This state has also been linked to problems with the intestines having an over-inflammatory response to the parasitic state/condition.

    Given that more and more data links our digestive system’s health with immune system function, inflammatory reaction, and other problems, anything that can negatively impact it is important—especially if it becomes a chronic issue.

    Putting all that information together, isn’t it *possible* that use of ibuprofen in children (especially at too heavy a dose, or for prolonged periods) might create systemic problems that, at their root, were caused by the ibuprofen?

    And this isn’t just about digestion; it’s also about the immune system and the effect of inflammation on the brain and body. Consider: a vaccine is designed to trigger the immune system, to get it to kick off production of disease-fighting antibodies, T cells, etc. If the body is given something that *suppresses* that system at the same time it gets a vaccine (or worse, multiple vaccines in one shot and several of those shots, as our schedule often does), it might be the stress equivalent of this:

    “You MUST go to the store, the bank, the doctor’s office, and pick up your kids at school… and you must do all of these things between 2:30 and 3:00 pm.” Basically, doing all of those things at once is impossible—and if you’ve been told “or you will die,” the stress levels definitely get ramped up.

    When we administer multi-disease vaccines, especially several at once, we risk putting that kind of stress on a person’s immune system and body. Many who already have a strong immune system and healthy body and good genetics may weather it okay… but for others who suffer from poor nutrition, malnutrition, lack of food, endemic stress in their lives, poor medical care, poor sanitation, some type of chronic illness, or simply possessing genes that evoke poor response to vaccines, this could cause all kinds of complications and reactions.

    If we make that worse by giving drugs at the same time that mess with the body’s inflammatory response, lower immune system strength, or create issues like stomach ulcers, the body’s reaction could be magnified.

    We already know our bodies have a “setting” for maintaining body temperature, and that various chemicals, drugs, and conditions can screw with the chemical mechanism that maintains it. We’re starting to understand that the same is true for our inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a growing number of diseases and conditions. How do we *know* that misuse, overuse, overdosage with anti-inflammatories doesn’t help cause that? How do we know that the accepted current dosage is safe? It might be safer for one person and less for another.

    If you add to all that, that babies have developing systems… it’s something we ought to be investigating.

    So, while it’s good that we’re getting this info on acetaminophen (and we already knew aspirin can cause Reyes Syndrome in children), we shouldn’t just default to ibuprofen as “safe” when in actuality, we just don’t know what *that* one does yet, in this mix of “OMG what do I give my kid, and when?”

    At least for now, perhaps the best solution is to avoid all these drugs whenever possible, and to get updated info on how high a fever has to get before we administer something billed as a fever reducer. Also, there are non-drug methods for reducing fever that were used for centuries… maybe we need to look more into those, and into learning how to use them safely (those too can become dangerous if done incorrectly).

  • Chris Allen

    I’d also like to remind those who think taking an anti-inflammatory regularly or at too high dosage for this person’s size and system couldn’t possibly “reset/affect” the body’s natural system for regulating inflammation of a couple of things:

    We already know this can be a problem for things like nasal sprays, where frequent/over use of a drug causes damage and creates a dependency in the body on the drug to do that function.

    We already know that, over time, people can build up a tolerance for a pain-killing drug, thus requiring higher and higher dosages to mitigate pain.

    We already know that for someone with chronic severe constipation (especially children), that if you resort to frequent enemas to deal with the problem, the body adjusts to it, and their use actually makes the problem worse in the long run.

    There are many other examples, but the point is this: right now we just don’t *know* the effect anti-inflammatory use may have on the body, whether or not it actually alters/resets the system that monitors, moderates, and controls inflammatory responses in the body… and since inflammation has been tied to an increasing number of diseases and debilitating effects, this is important.

    For instance, we know now that chronic inflammatory response plays a role in several brain diseases/conditions. We also know it affects the immune system, often causing it to overwork and to begin attacking the person’s own body.

    I’m glad that we’re learning more and more about these things, but we also need to get this information out there—not just to the public, but also to the doctors who prescribe medications and treatments, and to the medical schools that teach doctors.

  • Allison

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • Stone’s Throw Cafe

    I agree, wholeheartedly! Could explain the huge difference in numbers between boys and girls. Mom to 2 perfect, intact boys…

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