The Problem with Heroin Use During Pregnancy

When you’re pregnant, it’s important to take care of your health. Usually, mothers are advised to be cautious of what they consume during pregnancy. Doctors may request that pregnant women even avoid certain foods such as fish. This is because the health of the unborn baby depends heavily on the actions and behaviors of the mother. Subsequently, this is why heroin use during pregnancy is never a good idea.

If you are an expectant mother and you are using any drug (including alcohol), this can affect the health of your baby in many different ways. And none of these effects are beneficial for a baby’s health and development. As an expectant mother, you likely want the best for the baby you will be raising. This can’t happen, though, without making sure to steer clear of any illicit substances—especially a drug such as heroin.

How Heroin Affects Pregnant Mothers

Heroin use isn’t good for anyone’s health. This drug is an illegal opiate that is highly addictive. When someone takes heroin, there are many negative effects on the brain and central nervous system. Moreover, these effects can harm both a mother carrying a baby and the baby itself. Once a baby is born, the results of heroin use during pregnancy are likely to occur. Other opiates that can negatively impact an unborn baby include:

  • Codeine
  • Percocet
  • Morphine
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®) 

The health of a pregnant woman is highly important during pregnancy. Heroin use is not recommended even in people who aren’t pregnant. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that an expectant mother should also avoid heroin during pregnancy. Some of the most concerning effects of opioid use include:

  • Depressed breathing: A person’s breathing can become dangerously depressed if they use heroin. This effect can cause a person to stop breathing and die.
  • Reinforced drug-taking: Opioids alter activity in the limbic system, which reinforces drug-taking behavior. This makes it difficult to quit using heroin even if you want to.
  • Pain-message blocking: Pain messages that are transmitted through the spinal cord from the body are blocked by opioids. Serious injury could go untreated if pain messages are not noticed.

Many other factors may increase poor health outcomes in children born to mothers who used heroin during pregnancy. The use of other drugs in addition to heroin, the mother’s malnutrition, and environmental exposure to drugs all pose a greater risk for problems occurring in your child. Therefore it is important at any time before you get pregnant, while you are pregnant, or after you have given birth to seek medical care immediately if you are or if you think you might be using opioid drugs

Short-Term Effects of Heroin on a Pregnant Mother

Heroin use comes with many immediate effects. This drug can make you feel happy or euphoric for a little while, but this usually comes with some very negative side effects, such as:

  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramping 
  • Feeling dehydrated
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching all over your body

Heroin also slows down your breathing and heart rate, putting you at a higher risk of seizures or coma. However, the biggest danger is to your unborn child. The more often you use heroin during pregnancy, the greater chance your baby will have of developing a dependency on the drug. This means he/she will need medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms after birth that can be fatal if not recognized and treated in time.

Long-Term Effects on Mothers

Heroin is a serious illicit drug. Therefore, it can produce long-term effects for any user. The long-term effects of heroin use include:

  • Liver disease or infection
  • Infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis
  • Poor judgment that can lead to getting into dangerous situations

When a mother is expecting a child, these long-term effects become much more concerning as they have the potential to affect a healthy pregnancy. Mothers who use heroin can even experience a decrease in fertility which makes it difficult to become pregnant. Further, Opioid Use Disorders (OUDs) among pregnant women are linked with maternal death. 

Another concern with heroin use has to do with menstrual irregularity. Many times, taking heroin can cause a menstrual cycle to become irregular or will cause missed periods. This can lead to women who use this drug not realizing they are pregnant in the first place. Subsequently, a mother may not cease use of this drug while unaware of her pregnancy. Once her pregnancy becomes apparent, it may be too late to prevent serious effects on the baby’s health.

How Heroin Use During Pregnancy Affects the Baby

Many mothers, upon discovering they are pregnant, stop using drugs and alcohol entirely. It’s common for women who enjoy an occasional drink or even smoke cigarettes to quit all substance use cold turkey. For a mother in the throes of addiction or for a mother with a physical dependence on drugs, this can be a difficult and almost impossible task.

However, despite the difficulty, it is recommended that no drugs be used during pregnancy. This is because heroin use during pregnancy can lead to serious health consequences for the unborn baby. Birth defects, preterm labor, low birth weight, stillbirth, inherited addiction, and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), or Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (NOWS), can all develop due to exposure in the womb to heroin.

Birth Defects Caused by Heroin Use During Pregnancy

Heroin use during pregnancy can leave your baby with many different health problems before they are even born. Some of these problems include:

  • Fetal malnutrition
  • Heart malformations
  • Gastrointestinal conditions
  • Organ defects such as kidneys and lungs   
  • Central nervous system (CNS) disorders
  • Cardiac abnormalities which may result in heart failure or pulmonary hypertension

Heroin also poses the risk of giving your future baby brain damage if it causes preterm labor. If the child is born without any serious side effects, they will likely face developmental issues.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Heroin use during pregnancy can also cause your baby to be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a drug withdrawal symptom that happens in newborns; it causes them to experience symptoms such as tremors, hyperactive reflexes, and/or difficulty sleeping. Signs of this serious condition generally start within 72 hours of birth and include:

  • Irritability, including excessive or high-pitched crying
  • Yawning, stuffy nose, or sneezing
  • Loose stools and dehydration
  • Poor feeding and sucking
  • Increased sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

Currently, there are about 20,000 babies born with NAS each year in the United States alone. The risk of NAS goes up when women use heroin more frequently during pregnancy. Other factors such as the amount of heroin used and other drugs present in the mother’s system can contribute to the development of NAS. However, any use of heroin—or other drugs—during fetal development can cause this syndrome or lead to the other birth effects previously mentioned. 

Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (NOWS)

Another serious condition that can result from heroin use during pregnancy is neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). This is a drug withdrawal syndrome that occurs in a newborn whose mother used drugs during pregnancy. This condition can cause life-threatening symptoms including seizures, tremors, and vomiting.

The intensity of NOWS depends on a few different factors. Opioids the newborn was exposed to in the womb can affect how severe symptoms of NOWS are. The newborn’s overall health and whether the infant was born full-term can also affect the severity of symptoms. In serious cases, medication may be used to treat symptoms. Otherwise, the following treatments are used to ease uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms in newborns:

  • Swaddling
  • Rocking the newborn
  • Frequent feedings with high-calorie formula or breaks milk
  • Having the newborn share a hospital room with the mother
  • Lessening light and sound by placing the newborn in a dark and quiet room

How is Opioid or Heroin Use During Pregnancy Treated?

Women who are pregnant and suffering from heroin addiction often have a very difficult time getting off the drug on their own. Without medical assistance, it’s difficult to stop using heroin because of how addictive it is. However, to increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy, women who are suffering from heroin addiction are urged to seek treatment.

Once in treatment, medical professionals will help the patient with either Methadone or Buprenorphine maintenance therapy. These are medications that will help block the effects of heroin and ease withdrawal symptoms. Further, these medications won’t produce the positive effects associated with using heroin. This is known as substitution therapy. If pregnant women don’t receive medication-assisted treatment to wean themselves off of opioids, they often relapse and risk overdose once again.

Recovering From Heroin Addiction with New Directions for Women

Addiction is a serious illness that needs to be treated with the utmost care. This is especially true when a woman is pregnant. The consequences of an addiction, in these cases, are not only felt by the mother, but also impact the unborn baby.

If you are pregnant and are abusing opioids or using heroin during pregnancy, addiction treatment will help you overcome this serious condition. Our recovery experts, here at New Directions for Women, will work with you to figure out what treatment plan works best for your needs. If you or a loved one is struggling with a heroin addiction, contact us today. Recovery is a long road, and we’ll take the first steps with you.

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