3 Facts and 3 Myths about Opiate Use During Pregnancy

Contributed by Bethany Kotlar, MPH

Opiates are medications and street drugs that make you feel less pain and can cause a “high.”  Opiates include Vicodin, OxyContin, morphine, methadone, fentanyl and heroin. Opiates are very addictive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 almost two million Americans were addicted to prescription opiates.

Abusing prescription opiates can lead to many problems, including all too frequent death from overdose. From 1999 to 2014, over 165,000 people died from prescription opiate overdose alone. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that overdose deaths from heroin have increased six times from 2001 to 2014.

Pregnant women can also be addicted to prescription opiates or heroin.

What do you know about opiate use during pregnancy? Here are three facts and three myths you need to know.

Fact:  Abusing opiates during pregnancy can hurt the baby.

Abusing opiates during pregnancy can stunt your baby’s growth, cause you to go into labor too early, cause your placenta to detach from the wall of your uterus (abruptio placentae) and can even cause your baby to die in the womb.

Fact: Babies exposed to opiates in the womb can go through withdrawal when they are born.

If you use opiates in the third trimester, your baby may be born addicted to opiates. This can cause problems with your baby’s sleep, breathing and digestion. Your baby might also be irritable, cry more frequently, sweat, be over active and be stiff. Additionally, your baby may have to stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and/or be given low doses of opiates to wean him or her off of the drug.

Fact: Abusing prescription opiates or using heroin can cause other problems for you and your family.

Using heroin and abusing prescription drugs is illegal and can lead to problems with the law and even incarceration. Many people addicted to prescription opiates or heroin and their families experience financial hardship because of the money spent on drugs. Abusing drugs can also put you at risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis or other health problems.

Myth: I should quit opiates “cold turkey” when I find out I’m pregnant.

Stopping use of opiates during pregnancy can cause serious problems for you and your baby, including death. The best thing to do is work with your health provider who can put you on a safer opiate, like methadone, during your pregnancy.

Myth: Taking opiates during pregnancy is proven to cause birth defects.

We don’t know if using opiates during pregnancy causes birth defects. Some studies show higher risk of heart defects if you take opiates in the first trimester, but other studies have not found this to be true. If there is a risk for birth defects, it is probably small.

Myth: No one can help me with my addiction.

There are ways to recover from addiction and have a healthy pregnancy and baby. If you or a loved one is facing addiction, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-hour, confidential National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.   English or Spanish-speaking staff will take your call and refer you to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations that can help.

You can also call MotherToBaby toll-free at (866) 626-6847 to get up to date information on opiates and pregnancy.

Bethany Kotlar is the Program Coordinator for MotherToBaby Georgia. MotherToBaby Georgia is part of a national network of teratology information specialists that provide free, confidential counseling on exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding. For more information, visit www.mothertobaby.org


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