CDC Links Prescription Painkillers in Pregnancy to Birth Defects

WEDNESDAY March 2, 2011 -- Moms-to-be who take prescription opioid painkillers such as codeine, hydrocodone or oxycodone (Oxycontin) may increase the risk of birth defects in their newborns, according to a new United States government report.

Taking these types of analgesics just prior to pregnancy or in the early stages of pregnancy was linked to a modest risk of congenital heart defects in an ongoing population study, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risk for spina bifida, hydrocephaly, congenital glaucoma and gastroschisis was also heightened, the report said.

"Women who are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, should know there are risks associated with using prescription painkillers," said CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, in an agency news release. "They should only take medications that are essential, in consultation with their health care provider. "

In the study of data from 10 states, the CDC researchers found that 2 percent to 3 percent of mothers interviewed received prescription opioid pain killers, or analgesics, just before they got pregnant or early in their pregnancy. Any illicit use of painkillers was not assessed.

For those women, the risk of having a baby with hypoplastic left heart syndrome -- a critical heart defect -- was about double that of women who took no opioid drugs.

About 40,000 infants are born with congenital heart defects in the United States each year. Many of these babies die within a year, while the surviving infants may undergo lengthy hospitalizations, multiple operations and ongoing treatment for related medical problems, the CDC said.

According to the report, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the safety of most medications taken during pregnancy has not been established.

Many factors may influence the risks, including: how much medication a woman takes; at what stage of pregnancy she takes it; any other health conditions she has; and any other medications she takes.

However, the study authors noted that the risk from prescription painkillers in any one pregnancy is small.

"It's important to acknowledge that although there is an increased risk for some types of major birth defects from an exposure to opioid analgesics, that absolute risk for any individual woman is relatively modest," lead author Cheryl S. Broussard, of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in the news release.

"However, with very serious and life-threatening birth defects like hypoplastic left heart syndrome, the prevention of even a small number of cases is very important," she said, adding that it's important for any woman who is pregnant or planning to become pregnant talk to her doctor before taking any medication.

The CDC said its National Birth Defects Prevention Study is the largest ever done on causes of birth defects in the United States.

More information

To learn more about birth defects, visit the Nemours Foundation.

Posted: March 2011


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