Experts have learned a lot about the impact alcohol, tobacco, and drug use during pregnancy has on the unborn fetus. While most of us might think that tobacco and alcohol use poses the biggest threat today, drug use during pregnancy is a serious problem that is increasing. More than half of all pregnant women either take prescription or nonprescription drugs or use social or illicit drugs at some point of their pregnancy.
Many women will require some kind of medication during their pregnancy. It is up to the woman and her doctor to weigh the benefits against the potential risks to determine what she should take. Not all drugs enter the body through the same channels. While some are capable of crossing the placenta and reaching the fetus, others do not. Those that do can affect the baby directly, leading to birth defects, health conditions, and even fetal or maternal death.
Doctors must determine the advantages and disadvantages of all kinds of drugs. Even seemingly harmless medications like over-the-counter medicine can present some risk to the well-being of the woman and the fetus depending on what is in them. The obstetrician caring for the mother-to-be has in-depth knowledge about these medications and when to use them in any situation.
Why Drug Use During Pregnancy Is So Dangerous
It isn’t just the mother who is at risk from drugs. Many of the most popular illicit drugs cross the placenta and impact the health of the growing fetus. During pregnancy, the placenta contains little hairlike projections called ‘villi’ which extend into the wall of the uterus. The villi contain some of the fetus’s blood vessels. The placental membrane provides a thin barrier between the mother’s blood and the fetus’s blood contained in the villi. When a drug is in her bloodstream, it crosses the membrane and enters these blood vessels before passing through the umbilical cord and into the fetus.
The effects of the drug on the fetus depend on what the drug is, how strong it is, the fetus’s stage of development, and how much of the drug is passed from the mother to the fetus. The latter depends on the mother’s genetic makeup and how her body processes the drug.
When it comes to the use of illicit drugs due to addiction or misuse for recreational purposes, the risks become much greater. Some examples of drugs that pose a risk in pregnancy today include:
While tobacco and alcohol are not considered “illegal or illicit” drugs, some experts consider them to be more dangerous than many of those that are. They are also addictive substances that cause well-known problems when used to any degree during pregnancy. We already know that tobacco increases your risk of different types of cancer and other health conditions; but it is even more dangerous when used during pregnancy.
Another concern with the use of tobacco is that someone who smokes cigarettes is more likely to become addicted to drugs if they try them. Nicotine causes changes in the brain that make it easier to become addicted to other substances.
Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, birth defects, and is associated with a higher incidence of infant death. It increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which occurs after birth. These problems occur because the carbon monoxide and nicotine in the smoke reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to the baby by narrowing the blood vessels.
Like tobacco, alcohol reaches the fetus through the umbilical cord. Although the risks of drinking small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy aren’t known; experts recommend eliminating its use during pregnancy altogether. Drinking alcohol results in a higher incidence of miscarriage and stillbirths.
Drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. FASD includes a number of behavioral, physical, and intellectual disabilities that last throughout the child’s life. The condition can include physical symptoms, such as small head size and abnormal facial features as well health issues such as hearing and vision problems or conditions involving the heart, kidneys, or bones.
The legal use of marijuana in some states has softened the drug’s reputation in recent years. Even so, there is still plenty to worry about when it comes to using the drug during pregnancy. Like other addictive drugs, marijuana crosses the placenta to the fetus. The smoke from smoking it contains toxins that interfere with the delivery of oxygen to the baby.
What is known is that marijuana increases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels in the blood, reducing the volume of oxygen in the blood. What isn’t as well known is exactly how much of a risk the drug poses. The reason that research has been less conclusive is that many women who smoke pot also use alcohol and tobacco. The decrease in oxygen is likely to cause the same problems including an increased risk of miscarriage, premature births, developmental delays, low birth weight, and learning problems later on.
When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, the drug crosses the placenta to enter the fetus’s circulation. Fetuses eliminate the drug slower than adults do, meaning that it is present in the fetus’s body for a longer period of time. Cocaine causes a number of problems, depending on the stage of pregnancy during which the woman uses the drug. Early on, it may result in miscarriage. Later, it can cause placental abruption, resulting in severe bleeding, early birth, and death of the fetus.
Experts believe there is a greater risk of birth defects when women use cocaine frequently throughout their pregnancy. Frequent use is also linked to smaller head size and general growth restriction. When cocaine use occurs during the later stages of pregnancy, babies may be born with a dependency to the drug. They can suffer from withdrawal symptoms including muscle spasms, tremors, and feeding difficulties. Drug use during pregnancy also leads to defects of the organs and learning difficulties later on.
Heroin is highly addictive and it crosses the placenta to the fetus when used during pregnancy. As a result, the baby can be born addicted to the drug. In addition to causing potential premature birth and low birth weight like other drugs already discussed here, heroin can also cause breathing difficulties, bleeding in the brain, low blood sugar, and infant death.
Babies born addicted to the drug often suffer withdrawal symptoms including convulsions, diarrhea, irritability, joint stiffness, and problems with sleeping. Pregnant women who inject heroin are also at a greater risk of contracting HIV and potentially passing it to the fetus.
Treatment for heroin addiction in pregnant women is especially challenging. Often, healthcare providers use methadone treatment to reduce the impact of the detox process. In spite of the challenges in treating heroin addiction during pregnancy, it is always a better option than waiting until after the delivery of the baby.
Some common street names of methamphetamine include meth, crank, speed, and glass. By any name, methamphetamine causes many of the same problems that occur with cocaine. It reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the baby, leads to low birth weight, premature labor, miscarriage, and placental abruption.
Babies are sometimes addicted to meth at birth and suffer the symptoms of withdrawal. Experts believe that taking meth during pregnancy leads to learning disabilities later on.
Why Pregnancy Often Accompanies Addiction
Under normal circumstances, pregnant women make choices that they feel will be best for their growing babies. There are two situations that usually lead to drug use during pregnancy:
Research has not proven the effects of most drugs when used once during the first trimester of pregnancy. Certainly, the greatest risk comes from repeated use throughout the pregnancy. If you used a drug once before learning you were pregnant, the risks of side effects are much lower.
The second situation is the one that causes the greatest risk to the fetus. As you can tell from the descriptions of potential effects from the drugs listed here, the fetus can pay for the drug use for the rest of their life or with their life!
Of course, the best course of action is to get treatment for addiction before getting pregnant. However, many women engage in risky behavior because of their addiction, resulting in unplanned pregnancy.
The only alternative is to go through detox to flush the drug from your system as soon as you realize you are pregnant. It is imperative that you find an experienced treatment center to oversee the detox process for the comfort and safety of you and your baby.
What To Do if You're Pregnant and Have an Addiction
Pregnancy is an exciting time in any woman’s life. For the addict, it is often more emotional and worrisome than normal. You have more choices to make, each of which could have a serious impact on you and your baby. You need to be your healthiest in order to ensure the health of your baby now and long after birth.
Although overcoming tobacco addiction is difficult, your physician can help you determine the tools that are safe and effective to help you stop. Every cigarette you smoke while pregnant puts your baby at a greater risk of the effects of nicotine and carbon monoxide.
Alcohol, opioid, and narcotic dependence require professional treatment starting with detox. Don’t let the potential risks of the detox process keep you from seeking help to quit your addiction. Medical supervision reduces the risk to you and your baby. At the same time, failing to get help and continuing with drug use is much more likely to lead to complications or side effects.
Your healthcare provider will discuss your options with you and recommend the safest course of treatment. Make sure you tell your doctor that you are pregnant and be honest about the extent of your drug use. The best treatment plan is one that an experienced medical provider designs specifically for you and your needs.
Finding a Treatment Center
Detox is the first step in treating substance abuse and addiction. The idea of going through detox and the symptoms of withdrawal is scary under any circumstances. The fear is only stronger when you face the prospect of detox during pregnancy. The treatment center you choose should offer flexibility in the types of support and treatment they provide.
Who do you want to help you with the process? Do you want to rely on yourself for the outcome of your treatment? Is there a friend or family member that you rely on for support? The emotional support you receive is just as important as the education and experience of each staff member.
Making the decision to get treatment is probably one of the hardest ones you will make during your lifetime. Every detail matters from the setting to the attitudes of the staff members. You want a facility that treats your addiction as an illness and a team that treats you with respect and compassion.
Going through detox is the right decision for you and your baby. Professional, medically supervised detox is the only choice to ensure the well-being of you and your baby. Any addiction has potential risks. Don’t let your addiction lead to problems for your baby or for you.
Pemarro Recovery Center is a medically managed detoxification center located in a natural, peaceful setting. We provide the initial stage of physical healing from addiction in preparation for your continued treatment. Detoxification is the first step in the treatment of addiction disorders. We provide evidence-based treatment methods and expert medical supervision for safe detox and stabilization.
If you are pregnant and have an addiction to drugs or alcohol, contact Pemarro today. Every day that you spend with your addiction puts you and your baby at a greater risk. We understand what you’re going through. You can count on our team to treat you with compassion, kindness, and respect throughout your time with us. Drug use during pregnancy is never the right choice.