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Opiate Use During Pregnancy Linked to Premature Birth, Fetal Addiction & Death

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Addiction affects people from all walks of life, regardless of their physical condition or socioeconomic status. Likewise, a woman going through pregnancy can just as easily be affected by the strong arm of addiction.

opiates and pregnancyUsing opiates during pregnancy can harm the baby in many ways.

Opiate-based drugs are commonly used to treat most any type of pain symptoms. Over the past decade, prescriptions for opiate-type drugs have increased considerably.

Not surprisingly, the number of pregnant women abusing opiates at the time of delivery increased nearly five-fold between the years 2000 and 2009, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Once ingested, opiates can affect a fetus' body and development in much the same way the mother's body is affected. As opiate drugs come in a wide range of strengths with each drug designed for any number of uses, some types of opiates pose a greater risk during pregnancy than others.

For the most part, the severity of the addiction and the type of drug used determines the extent of potential harm caused to the fetus. More oftentimes than not, babies born to opiate dependent mothers start life as addicts and so require immediate medical care.

Opioid Usage Rates During Pregnancy
The opiate drug class consists of illegal substances, such as heroin and opium as well as legal prescription pain medications, such as Demerol and OxyContin. Opiates directly interfere with normal brain chemical functions to the point where the brain starts to depend on the drug's effects in order to carry out normal functions.
According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an estimated 4.4 percent of pregnant women used opiates for nonmedical or recreational purposes in 2010, with the majority of women abusing prescription pain medications. Even in cases where a woman takes opiates for medical reasons, the drug's ability to alter brain chemical functions may impair her body's natural ability to nourish and grow a healthy fetus.
Categories of Risk During Pregnancy

As most any drug can pose a potential risk during pregnancy, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has classified various drug types into categories of risk during pregnancy. According to the University of Washington, all opiate-based prescription drugs fall into one of out of five category groups:

  • Category A drugs pose no risk
  • Category B drugs pose little to no risk
  • Category C drugs may pose a risk
  • Category D drugs, commonly used to treat a serious medical disorder in the mother, can pose a considerable risk during pregnancy but the benefits likely outweigh the risks in terms of the mother's overall health
  • Category X drugs pose a substantial risk during pregnancy.
Fetal Exposures to Opiates
A growing fetus becomes exposed to opiate materials through the placenta in the same way oxygen and nutrient materials are delivered.
According to the Merck Manual, an estimated two to three percent of all birth defects result from some form of drug use.

Once drug materials cross the placenta, a fetus can be affected in different ways:

  • Developmental Delays
  • Damage to the Placenta Material
  • Abnormal Uterine Contractions
  • Reduce Blood Flow to the Placenta
Fetal exposures can also happen through the umbilical cord in cases where drug materials get absorbed through the placental membrane.

Opiates can have a cumulative overall effect on fetal development while also interfering with key developmental processes. Since fetal development takes place in stages, the stage in which a woman abuses opiates can have a considerable bearing on pregnancy outcome.

Without needed drug treatment help, the effects of opioid use during pregnancy can greatly compromise the baby's health and quality of life. Fortunately, there are treatment options available to help pregnant mothers abstain from opiate drug use during pregnancy.

Fetal Development Stages and Effects

The effects of opiate use on fetal developing can vary depending on:

  • Drug Type
  • Drug Strength
  • Drug Dosage Amount
  • Frequency of Use

While opiate use during pregnancy carries a low risk of actual birth defects, the drug can nonetheless interfere with key developmental processes that cause problems later on in life. That being so, chronic, high-dose opiate use can still result in miscarriage within the first eight weeks of a pregnancy.

During the first trimester of pregnancy, organ development takes place. Though rare, the risk of developing birth defects from opiate use is greatest during this stage. Once a woman reaches the second and third trimester stages, organ and tissue growth occurs as major systems in the fetus' body start to develop.

More than anything else, the risk of early labor remains, especially in cases where a woman ingests large doses of opiates on a frequent basis.

Effects on the Fetus
>According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a developing fetus experiencess opiate withdrawal effects in much the same way as a chronic drug user. During pregnancy, chronic drug use predisposes the fetus to withdrawal effects in the same way a person experiences withdrawal when needed amounts of the drug are lacking.
Effects on the fetus can also result from the type of lifestyle addiction breeds in terms of engaging in casual sexual encounters. This type of behavior not only exposes the woman to sexually transmitted diseases, but also the fetus.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome occurs in babies born to opiate dependent mothers. In effect, the newborn's body is in a state of drug withdrawal. According to the National Institute on Dru

g Abuse, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome increased by threefold between the years 2000 and 2009, which equals out to an estimated 13,539 infants in 2009. Babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome tend to have lower birth weights and are more likely to have respiratory problems at birth.
Treatment Considerations
A woman addicted to opiates may find it all but impossible to stop using drugs on her own during the course of a pregnancy. Fortunately, medication therapies designed specifically for opiate addiction work well at helping addicts abstain from ongoing drug use. Medications used include -
  • Methadone
  • LAMM
  • Buprenorphine

These medications help curb drug withdrawal and cravings effects in different ways by mimicking the effects of opiates and relieving the body's dependency on opiate effects. Compared to the damage that ongoing drug use can cause, opiate medication therapies pose a considerably lower risk of harm to the fetus during pregnancy.


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