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On the Rise: More Babies Born Addicted to Painkillers

< May. 02, 2012 > -- The number of newborns addicted to opiate medications has tripled since 2000, a new study says.

Photo of infant in incubator

At the same time, pregnant women have increased their use of opiate prescription painkillers by fivefold.

"This is becoming a big problem and affecting newborns at an alarmingly high and increasing rate," says study author Stephen W. Patrick, M.D., at the University of Michigan.

Withdrawal symptoms

Infants born addicted to drugs develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a form of drug withdrawal. They are often irritable and have tremors, seizures, breathing problems, and feeding difficulties. They are more likely to be at a low birth weight.

Researchers don't yet know the long-term effects of NAS as the child grows and develops.

"We need to think about how we can care for these babies who are going through withdrawal, minimize their symptoms, and get them home quicker," Dr. Patrick says.

A decade of data

For the study, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Patrick and colleagues looked at discharge information at more than 4,000 hospitals across the country for 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009. In that time, the number of babies born with NAS jumped from 1.20 per 1,000 hospital births in 2000 to 3.39 per 1,000 hospital births in 2009.

NAS seemed to be more common in areas of lower income and those served by Medicaid.

About 16 percent of teens and 7 percent of pregnant women ages 18 to 25 use illicit drugs. Opiate drugs were implicated in 5.63 of every 1,000 hospital births in 2009. Although other drugs can lead to NAS, prescription painkillers are the usual cause.

Toll of addiction

The fact that pregnant women take opioids isn't surprising, because the drugs are highly addictive. "Once dependent, people are dependent for a long time," says Marie J. Hayes, Ph.D., at the University of Maine. "It is difficult to treat."

Another expert says the study points out the prevalence of prescription drug abuse and the need for prevention.

"We need to identify and try to prevent this before or during pregnancy as opposed to after the fact," says Christopher Sturiano, Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

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Medications and Pregnancy

No one can say for sure that a medicine is safe to use while you're pregnant. But, avoiding medicines may not be a good idea, either. You and your health care provider should discuss the risks and benefits of medications you may need and decide what's best for you and your baby.

Many pregnant women take medication, including over-the-counter remedies. Ask your health care provider about the following, which are usually off-limits:

  • Aspirin. This nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) may put you at higher risk of bleeding, a low-birth-weight baby, and problems during delivery.

  • Ibuprofen, ketoprofen, indomethacin, and naproxen. These NSAIDs usually aren't recommended in the third trimester. They've been linked with a higher risk for fetal heart problems. They may also raise the risk for miscarriage.

  • Guaifenesin. Avoid this common ingredient in cough medicine during the first trimester. One study showed that it may increase the risk for neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, although other studies failed to confirm this.

  • Nizatidine. This medicine for heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease has been linked to problems with pregnancies in animals. More studies relating to pregnant women are needed.

Don't assume you need to suffer through symptoms because you're expecting a baby. Ask your provider about ways to get relief.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - Tobacco, Alcohol, Drugs, and Pregnancy

Journal of the American Medical Association - Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and Associated Health Care Expenditures

March of Dimes - Prescription Drug Abuse