Women receiving prescription opioids while pregnant are at increased risk of their babies having drug withdrawal syndrome traditionally linked with illicit drug use during pregnancy.

The condition called Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) was previously exclusively diagnosed for children whose mothers were taking illegal narcotics during pregnancy, but new research has found that the condition can also be caused by the legal, common pain relief drugs.

Babies Opioids Withdrawal Syndrome

The new study, conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville in the US shows that opioid pain relievers being prescribed to pregnant women, results in an elevated risk for the withdrawal syndrome. Opioids include drugs such as codeine, morphine and methadone.

The researchers looked at 3 years of data and examined the records of over 112,000 pregnant women. About 28% of the women in the study received at least one prescription for an opioid pain reliever. Of the babies in the sample group that were born with NAS, 65% had mothers that received legal prescriptions for opioid pain relievers.

Babies exposed to opioids were more likely to be born prematurely, have complicated births, low birth weight and complications such as respiratory distress. The mothers themselves, when compared with women who did not receive opioids while pregnant, were found to be more likely to have anxiety or depression, suffer from headache or migraine and have musculoskeletal disease.

Dr Stephen Patrick, assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Vanderbilt said: “Not all babies exposed to opioids have drug withdrawal after birth for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Our study found that several things increased an infant’s risk, including the duration of opioid use, the type of prescription opioid, how many cigarettes a woman smoked and if they used a common antidepressant medicine called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”

“Opioid Epidemic”

Dr Patrick added: “All in all we hope the study garners the attention of state and federal policy makers to highlight that the prescription opioid epidemic is having a tangible impact on both mothers and infants.”

In a briefing document published late last year, the British National Institute for Health and Care Excellence said: “Opioid analgesics can be used at any stage of the pregnancy for the short-term treatment of moderate to severe pain when other analgesics are not effective or not clinically indicated.”

On the other hand it does warn that there was “inadequate data” on whether or not these drugs can cause mutations in unborn children.

More About Opioids

Alphabiolabs can perform drug testing for opioids and a number of other drugs whether they are illegal or available on prescription. For more information on the drugs themselves and the effect they can have, please visit our drugs we test for page. We utilise the latest drug testing techniques and are continually expanding our services; so if there is a drug you wish to test for, that is not in the list, feel free to call 0333 600 1300 or email info@alphabiolabs.co.uk to ask whether or not we can test for a particular substance or drug.

Here is some further information about the opiods that are mentioned in this blog post:

Codeine: Codeine is used to treat mild, moderate and severe pain. It is most commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including dental and injury-related pain. It is a class B drug, only available on prescription, except in low concentrations when combined with paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Aside from Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) other risks include nausea, vomiting, constipation and drowsiness. There are more serious side effects in larger doses, such as respiratory depression, hypotension and muscle rigidity.

Morphine: Morphine is used to treat moderate to severe pain. Short-acting morphine is taken as needed for pain. Extended-release morphine is for use when around-the-clock pain relief is needed. It is a class A drug and possession is illegal without a valid prescription.

Aside from NAS other risks include frequent use leading to chronic headaches and users may take more to dull the pain, thus developing a cycle of consumption, leading to dependence.

Methadone: Methadone reduces withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin or other narcotic drugs without causing the “high” associated with the drug addiction. Methadone is used as a pain reliever and as part of drug addiction detoxification and maintenance programs and is only available from certified pharmacies.

Aside from NAS other risks include sickness and constipation experienced with first time use. High doses can make users feel sleepy and in extreme cases can cause users to stop breathing or fall into a coma.

Mixing opioids with other depressants, such as alcohol or sedatives, can increase the risk of overdose.