Opioids and Pregnancy
The opioid epidemic has caused devastating consequences across the country, posing a serious threat to families nationwide and affecting even the youngest family members. Every day, more than 115 people die from an opioid overdose, and, approximately every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from the effects of opioid withdrawal. The good news is that, if a pregnant woman who is abusing opioids seeks and receives proper medical treatment, both she and her baby can have a healthier outcome.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids—also known as narcotics or painkillers—are a type of drug that can be found naturally in the opium poppy plant. Some opioid medications are made directly from the plant. Other opioids are created in labs. Opioids include medications prescribed by healthcare professionals to relieve pain, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine, to name a few. The illegal drug heroin is also an opioid.
When opioid medications are taken as prescribed, they are usually safe. However, opioids are highly addictive. Misusing opioids—including using them to get high—is dangerous and potentially deadly.
dangers of opioid abuse, including how it can harm a developing baby.
How Can Opioids Affect Pregnancy?
When taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional, prescription opioid medication can be safe for a pregnant woman and her developing baby. Abusing opioids during pregnancy, however, can lead to serious complications, including:
- Placental abruption, the partial or complete separation of the placenta from the uterine wall, which can be life-threatening to mother and baby
- Preeclampsia, high blood pressure in the mother combined with signs that her organs are not working properly, which can be life-threatening for both mother and baby
- Problems with fetal growth
- Miscarriage or stillbirth
- Premature birth, birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy, which can endanger a newborn
- Birth defects, which include defects of the heart, neural tubes, and abdomen
A pregnant woman who is abusing opioids also may be less likely to care for herself or to get proper prenatal care. An opioid overdose can slow or even stop a pregnant woman’s breathing, endangering her life and the life of her developing baby. Opioid overdoses are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths.
What Is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?
When a pregnant woman abuses opioid drugs, the opioids can pass through the placenta and reach her developing baby. After birth, her baby may develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a group of health issues that result from drug withdrawal. Signs and symptoms of NAS often appear within days of birth but may take longer to appear.
look at how opioids and other substances can reach a developing fetus.
Symptoms of NAS may include:
- High-pitched or excessive crying
- Blotchy skin tone
- Sleep difficulties
- Feeding problems
- Stiff arms and legs
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Stuffy nose and sneezing
- Slow weight gain
Babies born with NAS may experience symptoms for days or even weeks and require lengthy hospital stays. Techniques such as swaddling, skin-to-skin contact, and certain medications may help soothe infants with NAS.
opioids and other drugs can cross the placenta and damage a fetus.
How Can Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Be Prevented?
- Babies born to mothers who do not use drugs such as opioids during pregnancy that can cause NAS are not at risk for NAS.
- A pregnant woman who is prescribed any type of medication—including opioids for pain relief—should always work with her healthcare professional to ensure a healthy outcome for herself and her developing baby.
- A woman who is pregnant and abusing opioids should talk with her healthcare professional right away and follow the recommended treatment plan. Treatment may include behavioral therapy, counseling, and medications that can help ensure a healthier baby. A pregnant woman should not discontinue opioid use without medical supervision because stopping opioid use too quickly can endanger the health of both the mother and her developing baby.
Consult your healthcare professional to learn more about ways to prevent and treat opioid abuse during pregnancy and neonatal abstinence syndrome.
To learn more about our childbirth teaching tools that educate about drugs and other hazards to pregnancy, please visit our Pregnancy Hazards Section.
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