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Pregnancy and Opioids

You may need to take medicines while you are pregnant. But not all medicines are safe during pregnancy. Many medicines carry risks for you, your baby, or both. Opioids, especially when misused, can cause problems for you and your baby while you are pregnant.

What are opioids?

Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are a type of drug. They include strong prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and tramadol. The illegal drug heroin is also an opioid.

A health care provider may give you a prescription opioid to reduce pain after you have had a major injury or surgery. You may get them if you have severe pain from health conditions like cancer. Some providers prescribe them for chronic pain.

Prescription opioids used for pain relief are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by your provider. However, people who take opioids are at risk for opioid use disorder (OUD) and overdose. These risks increase when these medicines are misused. Misuse can include taking your opioid medicines in greater amounts or more often than you are supposed to, using them to get high, or taking someone else's opioids.

What are the risks of taking opioids during pregnancy?

Taking opioids during pregnancy can cause problems for you and your baby. The possible risks include:

  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) - withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and poor feeding in newborns
  • Neural tube defects - birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord
  • Congenital heart defects - problems with the structure of the baby's heart
  • Gastroschisis - a birth defect of the baby's abdomen, where the intestines stick outside of the body through a hole beside the belly button
  • Loss of the baby, either miscarriage (before 20 weeks of pregnancy) or stillbirth (after 20 or more weeks)
  • Preterm delivery - a birth before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy
  • Stunted growth, leading to low birthweight
  • Problems with the placenta (the organ that brings oxygen and nutrients to the baby)

If your provider suggests that you take opioids during pregnancy, you should first discuss the risks and benefits. Then if you both decide that you need to take the opioids, you should work together to try to minimize the risks. Some of the ways to do this include:

  • Taking them for the shortest time possible
  • Taking the lowest dose that will help you
  • Carefully following your provider's instructions for taking the medicines
  • Contacting your provider if you have side effects
  • Going to all your follow-up appointments
If I am already taking opioids and I become pregnant, what should I do?

If you have been taking opioids and you become pregnant, contact your provider. But don't stop taking the opioids on your own. If you suddenly stop taking opioids, it could cause severe health problems for you or your baby. In some cases, stopping suddenly during pregnancy may be more harmful than taking the medicines.

Can I breastfeed while taking opioids?

If you regularly take opioid medicines, you may be able to breastfeed. It depends on which medicine you are taking. But you should not breastfeed if you have HIV or take illegal drugs. Check with your provider before breastfeeding.

What is the treatments for opioid use disorder (OUD) in pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and have an opioid use disorder, do not stop taking opioids suddenly. Instead, see your provider so you can get help. The treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) is called medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD). For MOUD during pregnancy, providers prescribe either buprenorphine or methadone. These medicines can reduce your cravings and help prevent withdrawal.

Counseling, including behavioral therapies, can also help you to change your attitudes and behaviors related to drug use and build healthy life skills.