The Effects of Drugs on Pregnancy

June 9, 2015

A pregnant woman holding pills

Anytime a person abuses drugs, she is potentially causing serious physical and psychological damage to her body. Along with the common effects of drug abuse, such as organ damage, she also runs the risk of developing a physical dependence or addiction to the drug, or of having an overdose. These dangers are significant enough for a normal adult, but they are exponentially greater for pregnant women, fetuses and newborn children.

Why Drug Use during Pregnancy Affects Unborn Children

A portion of everything that a pregnant woman consumes goes towards the nourishment and development of the fetus. As a result, anytime she uses drugs, her body sends some of these chemicals to the fetus. As Douglas H. Sandberg explains, the placenta, which was once considered a barrier that protected the fetus from anything harmful the mother might consume, is actually more like a filter that allows drugs and other harmful substances to pass through.

The effects of drug abuse on pregnancy, therefore, can be severe not only for the mother, but also for the unborn child.

Potential Side Effects of Drug Use during Pregnancy

SAMHSA’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that in the United States, 5.9 percent of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44 were current illegal drug users. This number shows that a small but significant number of women engage in drug use during pregnancy. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that while several factors affect the development of a fetus and a young child, prenatal drug use does seem to cause harmful and sometimes long-term effects on the exposed child.

It goes on to list the following potential side effects of illegal drug use during pregnancy:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Low birth weight
  • Decreased arousal in fetuses
  • Developmental delays such as impaired attention, language and learning skills

The NIDA also enumerates some of the specific health effects that certain drugs have on pregnant women and their children:

  • Cocaine: premature delivery, low birth weights and smaller size for gestational age
  • Methamphetamine: increased risk of premature birth, placental abruption, slowed fetal growth and heart and brain abnormalities
  • Inhalants: fetal malformation and spontaneous abortion
  • Opioids: low birth weight and spontaneous abortion

Illegal drugs are not the only danger to pregnant women, though. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that some prescription medications can also be harmful or potentially fatal to fetuses. The effects of medications taken during pregnancy are affected by several factors, including:

  • Medication dosage
  • The time during the pregnancy that the medication is taken
  • The woman’s other health conditions
  • Other medications the woman takes during the pregnancy

More research is needed to clearly show which medications should or shouldn’t be taken during pregnancy, but overall, a women who is pregnant or wants to become pregnant should talk to her doctor about any medications she is currently using or might be prescribed in the near future. Together they can work out a plan to both treat any health issues and make sure that the baby is healthy and safe.

Find More Information about the Effects of Drug Use during Pregnancy

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