Risks of Opioid Abuse by Pregnant Women

Despite the best intentions of the physicians, the effort to improve pain management has led to some adverse health consequences across the United States. Among all repercussions, the rise in prescription drug abuse remains the most serious one.

The use of prescription drugs is primarily restricted to acute pain arising from severe injuries, medical conditions or surgical procedures. They are only meant to be used when the non-opioid alternatives are ineffective. However, misuse and nonmedical use of pain relief drugs has led to an epidemic of opioid abuse, leading to significant spike in the rate of drug overdose and death.

Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose cases has quadrupled. Despite the above marked increase, it did not reflect any reduction in the reports of pain. Such has been the menace of opioid abuse that over 33,000 overdose deaths were witnessed in just 2015, the highest recorded death toll in a given year.

Opioid abuse occurs in most age groups and both sexes. Although men are more likely to abuse prescription drugs, women are now closing the gap. Though the risk of developing opioid use disorder (OUD) exists in both males and females, gender differences can alter the expression of this condition. Due to biological and social reasons, women stand more vulnerable and susceptible to the symptoms of opioid abuse.

Women have been found to be more likely to be prescribed these medications for a long-term use. Moreover, the progression of opioid dependence occurs at an accelerated pace among women. Every three minutes a woman is taken to the emergency department (ED) due to the misuse or abuse of prescription drugs. In more extreme cases, an intentional overdose of prescription drugs is involved in one in 10 suicides among women.

Impact of opioids on mothers and infants

The consequences of substance abuse, including that of prescription drugs, among women is most extensive during their reproductive years. Studies suggest that the abuse of opioid by women in this age group is a major risk factor for them and their newborns.

Indulgence in opioid abuse during the critical phase of pregnancy increases the risk of inflicting birth defects, such as congenital heart disease, neural tube defects and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), among the newborns. These risks are significantly higher when a woman is exposed to opioids in the early stages of pregnancy.

The babies exposed to opioids also risk the development of withdrawal symptoms, cognitive impairment and developmental problems, which are likely to accompany them throughout their lives. The newborns diagnosed with NAS experience a range of health-related complications, such as tremors, rapid breathing, slow weight gain, stuffy nose, sweating, vomiting, persistent irritability and crying, sleep problems, and problems with feeding and breathing.

In most cases, pregnant women with OUD are late in seeking medical intervention due to lack of awareness or stigma attached to drug abuse, especially by women, and miss the sessions with doctors. However, this is extremely dangerous because early and routine prenatal care is essential for the healthy growth of the child.

Stemming the tide

Given the chronicity of opioid addiction, it is important to screen women, especially those who are pregnant, for OUD, as well as their infants who may have been affected. These women are also at risk of developing postpartum depression and may require support for breastfeeding.

Women who use opioids intravenously also risk the development of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C. However, with the exception of HIV-positive pregnant women, those with OUD can also avail breastfeeding support that encourages mother-infant bonding. This can effectively diminish the severity and time period of withdrawal symptoms.

Furthermore, it is also crucial to implement steps for identifying the signs of a relapse. This would not only assist a woman in receiving the help she requires, but could also significantly reduce the risks to the infant.

Recovery from opioid addiction

Opioid addiction has been termed as one of the worst drug crises in the U.S. millions of men and women across the nation. Moreover, it has become the main driver of overdose deaths across all age groups. In the light of the above findings, it is essential to educate patients about the consequences of opioid abuse. The medical practitioners should ensure to prescribe these medications for the treatment of chronic pain.