Pain killers and birth defects

pill-bottlesBabies born to women who take opioid pain killers such as codeine, oxycodone or hydrocodone just before or in early pregnancy are at increased but modest risk of birth defects, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, recently published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found 2-3 percent of mothers interviewed were treated with prescription opioid pain killers, or analgesics, just before or during early pregnancy. (The study did not examine illicit use of these medications.)

The most commonly used opioid meds reported by women were codeine and hydrocodone. Treatment with these pain killers was linked to several types of congenital heart defects as well as spina bifida, hydrocephaly, congenital glaucoma and gastroschisis, an abdominal wall defect. (The findings with some congenital heart defects also appeared in previous studies.) This study found that women who took prescription opioid medications just before or during early pregnancy had about two times the risk for having a baby with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (one of the most critical heart defects) as women who were not treated with them.

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting nearly 40,000 births in the United States each year. Many infants with congenital heart defects die in the first year of life, and infants who survive often require many surgeries, lengthy hospitalizations and a lifetime of treatment for related disabilities.

The studies lead author, Dr. Charyl S. Boussard, said , “It’s important to acknowledge that although there is an increased risk for some types of major birth defects from an exposure to opioid analgesics, that absolute risk for any individual woman is relatively modest. However, with very serious and life threatening birth defects like hypoplastic left heart syndrome, the prevention of even a small number of cases is very important.”

For more information on this study, click here.  Always talk with your health care provider if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy and you have taken or are considering taking any medication, whether prescription, over-the-counter or herbal.

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