Dangers of Heroin in Pregnancy

pregnancy and heroinHeroin is a highly addictive and illegal drug that can be especially harmful to women and their unborn babies during pregnancy.
 
Pregnant women who abuse heroin may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, get into legal troubles, or develop sexually transmitted diseases like hepatitis or HIV/AIDS. Heroin also passes across the placenta to the fetus and can lead to respiratory distress, passage of meconium into the uterus, possibly disruption of the baby’s physical and cognitive development, preterm labor, preeclampsia, placenta previa, and miscarriage. Heroin abuse and addiction can also lead to the development of a dependency in the newborn.

Babies whose mothers abused heroin may be more likely to suffer from several congenital birth defects involving the heart, spine, or eyes, and have feeding and sleeping difficulties as well as apnea. About 50 percent are born with lower-than-average birth weights, the Global Library of Women’s Medicine (GLOWM) reports. Heroin addiction in pregnant women may also lead to a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), as indicated by a case reported by the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

Babies Born Dependent on Heroin

Perhaps one of the most common side effects of heroin abuse during pregnancy is the onset of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which occurs when a baby is born dependent on an opioid drug like heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that one baby who is suffering from opioid withdrawal is born every 25 minutes in the United States. In 2012, more than 20,000 infants were diagnosed with NAS.

Babies born with NAS have to stay in the hospital, on average, about two weeks longer than other newborns, NIDA reports. NAS generally develops within a few days of the baby being born, and it is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Trouble feeding
  • Difficulties breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Slow weight gain

These babies will usually need to be treated with medications, often morphine, in a dose that is slowly lowered over time to help wean them off the narcotic while minimizing the withdrawal symptoms they are experiencing.


Researchers are still unclear on what the long-term cognitive or other effects of heroin, or NAS, may be on the baby.

Risks of Sudden Stoppage of Heroin While Pregnant

Mothers may undergo intense withdrawal symptoms if heroin abuse is stopped, which can be dangerous to them and the fetuses. Physically, the side effects of opioid withdrawal may be similar to the flu, while psychologically, drug cravings, anxiety, insomnia, and depression are common. Opioid withdrawal can cause stillbirth, preterm labor, or even miscarriage when experienced by a pregnant woman, and for this reason, it may not be advisable to stop taking an opioid drug suddenly.
Heroin may instead be replaced by a longer-acting opioid, such as methadone or buprenorphine, during pregnancy to help minimize withdrawal, pregnancy complications, and lower the intensity of NAS in the infant. Buprenorphine can be used to help detox a pregnant women from heroin and may be safest when initiated in the second trimester, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports.

When used as a part of a comprehensive substance abuse treatment program, a replacement drug like buprenorphine can help to lower the adverse side effects of narcotic drugs to both the mother and baby by helping them to wean off drugs like heroin. This then lowers all the potential risks and hazards created by its ongoing abuse.

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