By Myra Davis
Drug addiction is difficult enough for a person to fight on their own. For those facing drug addiction during pregnancy, the battle is twice as challenging, as their actions directly affect the life of another. Everything that enters a mother’s body has the potential to be passed on to her unborn child. A key to preventing the detrimental effects of drug use during pregnancy is knowledge. Knowing the signs and symptoms displayed by a pregnant woman who is abusing substances and the effects it will have on both them and their unborn child are the first steps in getting them the help they need.
Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction in Pregnant Women
The symptoms of drug addiction during pregnancy are similar to symptoms in those who are not expecting; however, a pregnant woman’s drug use can lead to more serious complications, such as anemia, blood and heart infections, skin infections, and hepatitis, as well as other infectious diseases. The use of drugs can also lead to termination of pregnancy in miscarriages and stillbirths and could cause seizures, breathing problems, and stroke or brain damage in pregnant women, among other dangers. The typical symptoms of drug use that might also be witnessed include inability to sleep, changes in eating habits, shaking hands, watery eyes, poor physical coordination, chronic dishonesty, paranoia, and more.
- Illegal Drug Use and Pregnancy: Stanford Children’s Health outlines of the risks associated with drug use during pregnancy.
- Resource Guide: Alcohol and Drug Use During Pregnancy: The University of South Dakota’s overview of drug effects on both pregnant women and the fetus, newborn and child.
- Drug Addiction Symptoms: The Mayo Clinic’s outline of common signs and symptoms of substance abuse.
- Substance Abuse During Pregnancy: Guidelines for Screening (PDF): The Washington Department of Health’s detailed report on substance abuse in pregnant women and how to screen for drug use.
Common Drugs Used by Expecting Mothers
Though expecting mothers should only be using drugs prescribed to them by their doctors, there are some who are unable to quit the drug habits that started beforehand. The most common illegal drug used by pregnant women is marijuana. Other common drugs include tobacco and alcohol, both of which are highly dangerous to the fetus and are often used concurrently with other drugs. There are also some over-the-counter drugs that can endanger a pregnant woman and her child, and she may not be aware of the dangers. These drugs include aspirin, tranquilizers, caffeine, and certain vitamins in large quantities.
- Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs Can Harm Your Baby: UPMC’s report on how drugs can harm an unborn child.
- Drug Facts Sheet (PDF): An outline of drugs commonly used by pregnant women and their effects on both mother and child by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
Effects on the Mother and Child Before and After Childbirth
There are many ways in which drugs can harm both the mother and child during pregnancy, and most also have lasting effects after childbirth. Drug use during the first trimester in particular can cause permanent damage to a child. Smoking while pregnant passes on cancer-causing drugs to the baby. It can result in fetal injury, premature birth, and low birth weight, as well as increase the chances of miscarriage and stillbirth. Alcohol consumption can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which includes intellectual disability, heart defects, cleft palate, and defects to the face and appendages.
Marijuana use can decrease the flow of oxygen to the baby and cause developmental delays and behavioral and learning problems. When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, it crosses the placenta to the fetus, which eliminates it much slower than an adult. In early pregnancy, cocaine use can increase the risk of miscarriage, and in later pregnancy, it can cause placental abruption. The baby can also become dependent on cocaine before it is even born. Methamphetamine use has similar effects. Due to its highly addictive nature, heroin use can also cause a baby to become dependent upon the drug. If the mother uses heroin during pregnancy, the baby could be born with a heroin addiction and experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, convulsions, diarrhea, fever, sleep abnormalities, and more. PCP and LSD can cause similar effects.
- Pregnancy and Substance Abuse: Brief descriptions of the effects of smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy.
- Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy: An overview of the slang names of illegal drugs, their effects on both mother and baby, and what would happen if a mother used drugs before knowing she was pregnant.
- Illegal Drug Use and Pregnancy: The University of Rochester Medical Center’s report on the effects of drug use on pregnant women.
Programs Focused on Helping Expecting Mothers
It has been estimated that there are approximately 105,000 pregnant women that need drug treatment each year, yet only 30,000 actually seek and receive that treatment. There are a variety of programs available to pregnant women who are using drugs. Common residential programs include therapeutic communities and drug treatment centers. Outpatient treatments are generally reserved for pregnant women who require intensive therapy but are not able to live at the center. The outpatient programs are for less-impaired drug users and are less expensive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently supported a clinical trial of buprenorphine treatment in heroin-dependent women, which has been proven to be safe for both the mother and the unborn child. If you know someone who is pregnant who you suspect may be using drugs, it is important to seek help right away to prevent more damage to both her and her baby.
- How Does Heroin Use Affect Pregnant Women?: The NIDA’s report on treatment for heroin addiction in pregnant women.
- Treatment Programs for Drug-Abusing Women (PDF): A report on the various treatment options available to women dependent on drugs.
- New Therapy for Addicted Pregnant Women Promising: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that a newer medication could be a better option to help wean new mothers and babies off of opioids.