Women take opioids for a number of different reasons. There are cases in which the woman is suffering from severe pain, and has been prescribed the drugs. Others may use illegal street drugs, such as heroin or opioids that were not prescribed to them. If these women find themselves pregnant, they often wonder whether or not it is safe to take opioids while pregnant. In most cases, particularly when there is an opioid dependency, it is not.
Risks Associated With Taking Opioids While Pregnant
When opioids are taken during pregnancy, it increases the baby’s risk of being born with birth defects. Spina bifida is one such birth defect and is a condition in which the spinal cord does not develop properly. A gap appears in the spinal cord, leaving the spine exposed. When this happens, a child’s brain, spine, and spinal cord may not develop properly. This often results in the lower limbs being paralyzed and mental handicaps.
The heart of a fetus may also not develop properly if opioids are used during pregnancy. Congenital heart defects, such as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, are less common, but may still be present in a newborn that was exposed to opioids in utero. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome is a birth defect in which the left side of the heart does not develop properly. This affects the normal blood flow through the heart.
Taking opioids, or any other substances, while pregnant can also cause babies to be born with low birth weights. This may be due to the fact that they simply cannot fully develop in the womb or they may be born prematurely. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) may also be a reason for low birth weights.
NAS is a condition children can experience at birth if they become addicted to substances in the womb. There is a good chance that if the mother is addicted to opioids and continues to use them throughout pregnancy, the baby will be born with NAS. When that is the case, they will need to go through the same withdrawal symptoms any person would after they stop taking opioids. In addition to contributing to a low birth weight, NAS can also cause breathing problems shortly after birth.
Options for Women Who Want to Minimize the Risk of Fetal Exposure
Naturally, many women want to stop taking opioids when they discover they are pregnant. This should only be done under the careful advice of a physician. Stopping the drug cold turkey, without using medication or slowly weaning off of it, could cause placental abruption. This is a condition in which the placenta fully or partially separates from the uterus. When this happens, the fetus could suffer from a lack of oxygen and nutrients.
There are a number of complications that could arise when opioids are taken during pregnancy. Women who are taking them and learn they are pregnant need to speak to a doctor as soon as possible.
Other forms of treatment for pain are available, and a doctor will likely want to switch the mother to medication that is safer than opioids for the unborn child. These may include alternatives to opioids such as methadone or Subutex. While these too may result in complications, they are likely to be less severe than those associated with opioid use.