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The Dangers of Opioid Use During Pregnancy


Opioid addiction is a serious and rapidly growing problem in the United States. According to a recent report from Blue Cross Blue Shield, the number of people addicted to opioids has grown by nearly 500 percent since 2010 — and only a very small percentage of people get the help they need for their addiction.

Opioids are often prescribed for common physical health issues, chronic pain conditions, and to aid recovery from surgery. Many people take them without a problem, while others develop an addiction to their medication. This can cause them to take more than prescribed and can lead to addictions to other harmful drugs.

Women who abuse opioids while pregnant can raise the risk of harmful effects on their newborn babies

“The effects can vary and are somewhat unpredictable. It has to be assumed that any fetus with prolonged or chronic exposure will develop a dependency on the drug,” says Robert Noll, M.D., Medical Director, Pediatric Hospitalists and Emergency Care at Crozer Health.

Learn more about how opioids affect pregnancy and the steps that can help with addiction.


Opioids and Pregnancy

Opioid dependency is dangerous to both the mother and the developing fetus because of the risk of opioid withdrawal effects. A healthy pregnancy is difficult to maintain during opioid withdrawal symptoms and the risk of miscarriage is real.

If you do take a prescribed opioid and are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider immediately. Do not suddenly stop taking the prescription.

“Patients should not stop taking the opioids on their own as this can cause the unhealthy conditions of withdrawal in themselves and the fetus,” says Dr. Noll. “Primary care providers and obstetricians are well versed in how to access legal opioid replacement therapy for their pregnant patients or to manage ongoing prescribed pain management regimens during pregnancy.”


When a Baby is Born Dependent on Opioids

Infants exposed to opioids during pregnancy are at an even greater risk for certain birth defects and complications.

Infants can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) from drugs taken by the mother. NAS is the condition in which a baby exposed to opioids (or other dependency causing drugs) has withdrawal symptoms after delivery when the infant no longer receives the drug through the mother. Symptoms of NAS often begin one to three days after birth.

“NAS can affect the infant’s neurologic system, gastrointestinal tract, skin and other organ systems in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Noll. “NAS also effects the early life development of an infant that is interacting with the world outside the womb for the first time while suffering withdrawal symptoms.”

Opioids taken during pregnancy can also increase an infant’s risk of developing birth defects, such as problems with their heart, spine, eyes, and even their brain.


Getting Help for an Opioid Addiction When Pregnant

If you or someone you know is taking opioids while pregnant, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Making your doctor aware of your pregnancy and any opioids you may be taking at the time can help in finding the right treatment to keep both you and your baby safe.

“Crozer-Chester Medical Center has established an NAS Center of Excellence on the hospital pediatrics unit for the care of these babies,” says Dr. Noll. “NAS care is provided in a safe, nurturing family-friendly environment. Doctors, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and social workers create a multidisciplinary team to provide the best start in life possible to the NAS babies and their families.”

Speaking with your doctor about any medications you’re taking or problems with taking them during pregnancy is the best way to receive essential care for you and your baby.

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