New European research has found that taking common painkillers during pregnancy could affect the fertility of unborn children in later life.
Carried out by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, the team looked at the effects of two painkillers, paracetamol and ibuprofen, on tissue samples of human fetal testes and ovaries.
They found that after being exposed to either drug for one week, the tissues had a lower number of germ cells, the reproductive cells of the body which are egg cells in females and sperm cells in males.
The researchers also found that ovaries exposed to paracetamol for one week had more than 40 percent fewer egg-producing cells, and those exposed to ibuprofen had a nearly 50 percent reduction in cells.
The results are concerning as women produce all of their eggs while in the womb. If they are born with a reduced number this could lead to an early menopause.
The results suggested that man’s fertility could also be affected, with researchers finding the testicular tissue exposed to painkillers had around 25 percent less sperm-producing cells after exposure to paracetamol or ibuprofen.
The team found similar results when testing the effects of the painkillers in animal studies. Previous animal studies with rats also found that painkillers during pregnancy led to a reduction in germ cells in female offspring, which affected not only their fertility but also the fertility of subsequent generations.
The research suggested that painkillers may affect the fertility of future generations by triggering mechanisms in the cell that change the structure of DNA, called epigenetic marks. These marks can be inherited, which is a possible explanation as to how the effects of painkillers on fertility may be passed on to future generations.
The team also found that painkillers could have an effect on germ cells by affecting hormones called prostaglandins, which play a key role in the functions in the ovaries and testes.
Lead researcher Dr. Rod Mitchell commented on the results saying, “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.”
Most doctors also advise that ibuprofen should be avoided during pregnancy. Guidelines also advise consulting with your healthcare provider about which medications can be safely taken before and during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The results will be published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.