Why are opioids dangerous?

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain. Opioids are used as painkillers after an injury or surgery. They’re sometimes used to treat a cough or diarrhea. Common prescription opioids are codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine. Fentanyl is a prescription synthetic opioid pain reliever. If needed, a health care provider can write a prescription to get these kinds of medicines.

How can opioids affect your baby?

Taking opioids during pregnancy can cause serious problems for your baby, including birth defects. Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part of the body. They may affect how the body looks, works or both, and can cause problems in overall health.

Birth defects associated with opioid use during pregnancy include:

  • Congenital heart defects. These conditions can affect the shape of a baby’s heart, how it works or both.
  • Gastroschisis. This is a birth defect of a baby’s belly in which the intestines stick outside the body through a hole beside the belly button.
  • Glaucoma. This is a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve. If untreated, glaucoma can cause blindness.
  • Neural tube defects (also called NTDs). These are birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord.

Using opioids while pregnant may also cause complications like:

  • Miscarriage or stillbirth. Miscarriage is the death of a baby in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Stillbirth is the death of a baby in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (also called NAS). NAS is a group of conditions caused when a baby withdraws from certain drugs he’s exposed to in the womb before birth.
  • Placental abruption. This is a serious condition in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth.
  • Preeclampsia. This is when a condition that can happen after the 20th week of pregnancy or right after pregnancy. It’s when a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and signs that some of her organs, like her kidneys and liver, may not be working properly.
  • Preterm labor and premature birth. This is labor and birth that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early may have more health problems at birth and later in life than babies born full term. Opioids also can cause premature rupture of membranes (also called PROM). This is when the sac around a baby breaks before a woman goes into labor.
  • Problems with your baby’s growth.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (also called SIDS or crib death). This is the unexplained death of a baby younger than 1 year old. SIDS usually happens when a baby is sleeping.

What is opioid use disorder?

It may be hard for some people to stop using opioids. Opioids release chemicals in the brain that can make you feel calm and intensely happy (also called euphoria). Drug addiction is a brain condition that makes you use drugs, even if they’re harmful to you. Most people who take prescription opioids can stop using them without getting addicted to them. But using them regularly can make you dependent on them, even if you use them as directed by your provider.

Addiction to opioids is called an opioid use disorder. You may have an opioid use disorder if:

  • You take more opioids than your provider says you can take.
  • You have cravings (a strong desire) for an opioid.
  • You feel like you can’t stop taking opioids or reduce the amount you take.
  • You need more opioids to get the same effect.
  • You have problems at home, work or school caused by taking opioids.
  • You spend time getting and using opioids.
  • You feel sick when you stop using opioids or reduce the amount you take.

If you have opioid use disorder, you may have trouble taking care of yourself during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and taking an opioid, tell your health care provider. You may be able to change to a medicine that’s safer for your baby. Don’t stop taking an opioid without talking to your provider first. Quitting suddenly can cause severe problems for your baby. For more information visit marchofdimes.org.