In the early 1980s, doctors advised parents to stop using aspirin to treat children's fevers and instead use acetaminophen, thought to be the safer choice. But is it?
Over the past three decades, asthma rates among kids have skyrocketed and some pediatricians are now questioning whether acetaminophen is somehow linked to increased risk for the disease. Alarm was raised after a doctor from Ohio noted disturbing statistics found in over 20 studies on children's asthma.
Looking at recent research involving upwards of 320,000 children, Dr. John McBride, vice chair of the department of pediatrics and director of the Robert T. Stone Respiratory Center at Akron Children's Hospital, found that among younger children, risk for asthma was 61 percent higher when children took acetaminophen more than once a year, but less than once a month. And for more frequent users—more than once a month—asthma risk more than tripled for young children.
What's the connection? It could be that acetaminophen provokes inflammation in the airways of some children already at risk for asthma, Dr. McBride speculates. But the answer may not that simple, say other researchers.
"Children who take acetaminophen are usually getting it for fever control, and they get fevers because they have viral infections, which on their own are associated with developing asthma later in life," says Mahyar Etminan, a pharmacoepidemiologist at the University of British Columbia who also studies the connection between acetaminophen and asthma (via the New York Times). "It's hard to tease out whether it's the drug or the viral infection."
With conflicting information like this, what's a mom to do? Until more is known, at least one children's health expert offers parents a middle ground: simply use acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) more sparingly.
"We should be reserving paracetamol for very high fevers or for major pain relief," says Dr. Richard Beasley, a professor of medicine at the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, who is currently studying acetaminophen to see if the drug provokes or worsens asthma in adults. For the moment, sounds like wise advice to us, but check with your doctor to see what's best for your baby.