Dangers of Using Cocaine During Pregnancy
While many factors (such as a person’s environment, their social support system, and whether they use other substances in conjunction with cocaine) play a role in the potential effects of drug use on a mother and her unborn baby, fetal exposure to cocaine is associated with serious health issues, including several types of developmental and behavioral deficits.1 Here, we’ll help you understand how cocaine may affect a pregnant woman and her unborn child, as well as how critical receiving the proper treatment is to the health and safety of the mother and her child. Pregnant women struggling with cocaine addiction have access to a considerable amount of professional treatments for their substance use disorder, and the right help may prevent or reduce many of the risks associated with cocaine use during pregnancy.
If someone wishes to ensure their health and the health of their baby, it is best to stay away from any intoxicating substance, including alcohol, illicit drugs, and several types of prescription drugs (unless otherwise approved by a physician).
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a Schedule II drug and a powerful stimulant with a high potential for abuse. Though pharmaceutical cocaine continues to see limited use as a local anesthetic and vasoconstrictor, the majority of cocaine use takes place illicitly. Stimulants like cocaine may be used to elicit a sense of exhilaration and boost a person’s self-esteem.2
Stimulants like cocaine may be used to elicit a sense of exhilaration and boost a person’s self-esteem. Some people may use stimulants, including cocaine, in an attempt to boost mental and physical performance and suppress appetite.3
Illicit sources of cocaine are often encountered as a fine white powder. Purity is always a concern with street drugs, and cocaine is sometimes cut with other potentially harmful-to-ingest substances, such as talcum powder or even other stimulants like amphetamine. A free base, crystalline rock form known as crack cocaine continues to be a problematic substance of abuse.3 People may use cocaine in its various forms by snorting, injecting, or smoking the drug.4
Cocaine can have several harmful effects on the body. Some of these effects, such as respiratory tract issues and increased risk of infectious diseases, are associated with particular routes of use. No matter how it is used though, cocaine is associated with the potential for addiction and major health problems, including cardiovascular emergencies.4
How Does Cocaine Use Affect the Body?
When someone uses cocaine, the time it takes for them to feel its effects depends on the method of ingestion. Injecting and smoking cocaine provide the most rapid high since they provide the fastest delivery of the drug to the brain. However, this also means that the high produced by injecting or smoking cocaine subsides more quickly. For example, the high from snorting cocaine can last 15 to 20 minutes on average, as opposed to the high from smoking cocaine which may last only 5 to 10 minutes.4
Commonly reported subjective effects of cocaine include increased alertness and energy and reduced fatigue. The subjective stimulant effects and reinforcing behavioral qualities of cocaine result from increased activity within several neurotransmitter systems, including dopamine, a brain signaling molecule commonly associated with pleasure levels in the brain and body movements.5
The human body normally releases dopamine in response to pleasurable experiences such as eating, exercising, or having sex. These pleasurable feelings gradually subside as the dopamine is reabsorbed into the body’s cells. Cocaine prevents this reabsorption, leaving more dopamine outside of the cells for longer periods of time, which contributes to the euphoric high associated with cocaine use.4
Whether someone use cocaine for a short period or long period, they are at risk of developing adverse health issues across a range of the body’s vital systems. For example, cocaine use causes immediate changes to your cardiovascular system by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. This can increase the risk of cardiovascular emergencies like stroke or heart attacks.4
Long-term use of cocaine is also associated with different mental and physical health issues, including malnourishment, loss of sense of smell, bowel gangrene, and psychosis. The more someone becomes used to the rewarding or pleasurable feelings brought about by cocaine use, the more they may want to repeat the experience. Someone may develop tolerance to cocaine—the need for more cocaine to achieve previous psychological effects—which may also lead to the escalating patterns of use that contribute to cocaine addiction.4
Risks and Dangers of Using Cocaine While Pregnant
Using cocaine while pregnant can create problems for both a woman and her unborn child. Some of these problems can be devastating. It may not be easy to read about this topic as a pregnant woman struggling with cocaine use, or as someone who knows a pregnant woman struggling with cocaine addiction. However, it’s crucial to educate yourself on the dangers of using cocaine while pregnant so that you can make the best and most informed choices for yourself, your baby, or your loved one.
Cocaine’s negative effects on a fetus are largely due to the drug’s ability to easily cross the placenta and enter the unborn baby’s body, disrupting the central nervous system during crucial periods of fetal development and inhibiting healthy blood flow to the child’s brain.5
Some effects of drug use during pregnancy can persist for long after a woman’s baby is born. The extent of these negative consequences depends on the dosage, timing, and duration of a mother’s cocaine use, all of which influence how long the baby was exposed to the drug.5
The following are just some of the serious effects of using cocaine while a woman is pregnant. Remember: If someone seeks help for their cocaine abuse, many of these effects can be minimized or prevented depending on the extent of someone’s use.
Cocaine use during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of premature birth, meaning a baby is considered to be born too early (before 37 weeks).7 Babies born preterm may have a higher risk of serious health problems. After birth, they may experience issues with cognition as well as problems with their heart, eyes, and other organs. Later in life, they may have a higher risk of intellectual or developmental disabilities.8
Low Birth Weight
Low birth weight (less than 5 lbs. 8 oz.) is another serious risk associated with the use of cocaine during pregnancy. Some babies with a low birth weight can be healthy, but others can suffer from health problems such as eating problems, chronic infections, and difficulty gaining weight—issues that may require medical intervention.9
Cocaine use can increase the risk that a woman miscarries her baby, meaning her baby dies before 20 weeks of pregnancy.7 One study reports that there is a 40% increased risk of miscarriage when a woman uses cocaine while pregnant.1o This usually depends on the amount of cocaine a woman uses. However, if a woman has a miscarriage due to cocaine, the use of other drugs, or natural causes, it’s still possible to have a healthy pregnancy later on.
Placental abruption is a very serious risk of using cocaine during pregnancy. Without immediate medical attention, this could lead to the death of a mother and her baby.
Typically, the placenta grows on the upper part of a woman’s uterus and remains in place until her baby is born. Placental absorption occurs when the placenta detaches from the uterus prematurely, reducing the amount of oxygen and nutrients available to the baby and causing heavy bleeding in the mother.7
Mild placental abruption may cause few symptoms and monitoring in the hospital may be required until the bleeding stops. However, a moderate or severe abruption can lead to severe vaginal bleeding, growth problems in the baby, premature birth, and stillbirth. If the bleeding is uncontrollable, the woman may likely need to have a hysterectomy.7
Additional Risks of Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine abuse can cause problems for a pregnant mother, such constricted maternal blood vessels, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and an increased risk of arrhythmia—all issues that can secondarily cause problems for the developing baby. For example, the constriction of blood flow to the fetus and high blood pressure in the mother can result in impaired oxygen delivery to the fetus and intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding) in the baby’s skull.12
Cocaine can also lead to issues with the baby’s circulation, potentially harming the development of the baby’s organs. Cocaine use during pregnancy can also increase the risk of the following problems:12
- Injury to parts of the brain and intestines from compromised blood/oxygen delivery.
- Cardiovascular (heart) disorders.
- Neurological (brain and nervous system) and neurodevelopmental issues (brain development).
- Cleft palate.
- Polydactyly (an abnormal number of fingers or toes).
- Limb defects.
- Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome).
- Obstructive genitourinary defects.
- Swelling of the kidney.
- Gastroschisis (a condition in which the baby’s intestines protrude from the body at birth).
Treatment for Pregnant Women with Cocaine Addiction
There is always hope in some of life’s most painful and challenging situations, no matter how dire things may seem in the moment. A woman and her child don’t need to suffer the consequences of cocaine addiction. You or your loved one can receive professional help to stop using cocaine and begin a path to drug-free and fulfilling life.
American Addiction Centers offers specific addiction treatment options for mothers and their developing child. Programs such as residential (or inpatient) treatment or outpatient rehab offer special accommodations for pregnant women. These programs can provide you or your loved one with the guidance, monitoring, and support you need to stop using drugs and maintain sobriety.
By seeking professional help for cocaine abuse, a woman can take back control of her life and help ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of her unborn baby.
Further Reading On Drug Abuse
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Cocaine research report: What are the effects of maternal cocaine use?
- United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Cocaine research report: What is Cocaine?
- Center for Integrated Healthcare. (2013). Cocaine.
- Lambert, B. L., & Bauer, C. R. (2012). Developmental and behavioral consequences of prenatal cocaine exposure: a review. Journal of Perinatology: Official Journal of the California Perinatal Association, 32(11), 819–828.
- Gouin, K., Murphy, K., & Shah, P. S. (2011). Effects of cocaine use during pregnancy on low birthweight and preterm birth: systematic review and meta-analyses. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 204(4), 340.e1–340.e3412.
- March of Dimes. (2013). Cocaine and pregnancy.
- Maugh, T. (1999). Study links miscarriage to use of tobacco and possibly crack cocaine.
- MedlinePlus. (2019). Neonatal abstinence syndrome.
- March of Dimes. (2019). Neonatal abstinence syndrome.
- Tantibanchachai, C. & Zhang, M. (2013). Cocaine as a teratogen. Embryo Project Encyclopedia.
- March of Dimes. (2013). Placental abruption.