Did you know that a significant number of women of childbearing age fill prescriptions for narcotic painkillers each year? If a woman becomes pregnant while taking these medications, she is at an increased risk of having a baby with birth defects.
Opioid-based (narcotic) pain medications, such as codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, or morphine, are used to treat moderate to severe pain. Many women are unaware that the use of these medications during pregnancy, even when used as directed, may increase their chance to have a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain, spine, or heart. They also have an increased risk of preterm birth. Use of opioid-based painkillers during pregnancy can also cause babies to suffer withdrawal symptoms when they are born. This is a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS, and it is a growing problem in U.S. birthing hospitals.
A new report from the CDC found that on average, about 28% of privately insured and 39% of Medicaid-enrolled women of child-bearing age filled a prescription for an opioid between 2008-2012.
Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, women may be prescribed opioid-based pain medications before they know they are pregnant. “This highlights the importance of promoting safer alternative treatments, when available for women of reproductive age. We must do what we can to protect babies from exposure to opioids,” stated Coleen A. Boyle, PhD, MSHyg, Director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD).
“If you are using an opioid painkiller, you should also be practicing effective birth control, “ says José F. Cordero, MD, MPH, a pediatrician, birth defects expert formerly at CDC, and member of the March of Dimes Board of Trustees. “If you decide to get pregnant or do become pregnant, tell your health care provider about all the medications you are taking, right away. You may be able to switch to a safer alternative.”
The CDC’s Treating for Two: Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy initiative offers information to women and their healthcare providers about medication use during pregnancy. Go here to get more information.