Intergenerational fertility and painkiller use

One of the toughest realities of fertility medicine is that so much is outside of the patient’s control. You may be doing everything right: healthy diet, exercise, frequently enjoying sex, and meditation and practicing mindfulness to increase well-being. But with fertility medicine, there’s just so much that’s outside of behavioral science.

We’ve reported before on how parents’ exposure to pesticides can impact their sons’ fertility after he reaches adulthood. New research now indicates that a woman’s use of painkillers in pregnancy may impact her daughers’ ability to conceive future generations.

In a laboratory setting, mother rats were given painkillers during pregnancy and her female offspring were found to have had fewer eggs, smaller ovaries, and smaller litters of babies than those not exposed to the drugs.

Exposed male offspring were also found to be affected at birth — showing smaller numbers of cells that give rise to sperm in later life. However, their reproductive function recovered to normal levels by the time they reached adulthood.

These findings may be significant given the similarities between the reproductive systems of rats and humans, although it is difficult to directly extrapolate these results to pregnant women. The team recommends that pregnant women should stick with current guidelines to use painkillers at the lowest possible dose, for the shortest possible time. For women trying to conceive a baby today, it means that part of your biology may have been determined before you were even born.

Scientists tested the effects of two painkillers in pregnant rats — paracetamol and a prescription-only painkiller called indomethacin, which belongs to the same class of drugs as ibuprofen and aspirin. The rats were given varying doses of their ibuprofen and aspirin regimens, and results were seen after just 1 to 4 days of use. However, the gestational cycle of a rat is much shorter than in humans, so comparisons cannot be drawn for human dosages of such drugs.

Perhaps most surprisingly, in addition to affecting a mother’s immediate offspring, the study showed that painkillers taken in pregnancy also affected the subsequent generation of rats. The team found that the resulting females — the granddaughters of the mother given painkillers in pregnancy — also had reduced ovary size and altered reproductive function. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s aspirin that’s slowing things down today!

Scientists say the results suggest that some painkillers may affect the development of the cells that give rise to eggs and sperm — called germ cells — while a fetus is in the womb. This may be because the painkillers act on hormones called prostaglandins which regulate female reproduction and control ovulation, the menstrual cycle and the induction of labor.

In any case, painkillers should be used with caution during pregnancy. While rats aren’t the direct equivalent to humans, the evidence is anecdotal enough to encourage pregnant women to use as few painkillers as possible for the shortest time possible during pregnancy.

If you have questions about what’s affecting your fertility, contact Dr. Chamoun at Viera Fertility Center today. He and his team will fully evaluate your situation to determine what course of action may promise the best hope for fulfilling your fertility dreams. With appropriate interventions, there’s no need to worry about things like painkillers ingested three generations ago, because we work with patients to maximize their fertility where they are and with whatever assets they have. From increasing ovulation frequency to sperm donation to complete in vitro fertilization (IVF), we can give you the best chance possible of achieving the family you’ve been dreaming of since your own childhood.


University of Edinburgh. (2016, January 27). Painkiller use in pregnancy can cut female fertility, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 15, 2016 from