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Understanding Drug Use and Pregnancy

The risks involved with drug use during pregnancy

The effects of drugs, like cocaine and marijuana, can be devastating on a fetus. Unfortunately, many women of childbearing age in the U.S. use some form of illegal drug. Note that in some states marijuana is legal. But pregnant and breastfeeding women should still not use it.

A mother taking drugs during pregnancy raises her risk for anemia, blood and heart infections, skin infections, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases. She also is at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Almost every drug passes from the mother's bloodstream through the placenta to the fetus. Drugs that cause dependence and addiction in the mother also cause the fetus to become addicted.

A chromatography is a lab test done on a woman's urine. It can find many drugs, including marijuana and cocaine. Both marijuana and cocaine, as well as other drugs, can cross the placenta. Marijuana use during pregnancy may be linked to cognitive and behavioral problems in the baby. Cocaine use can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery of the fetus, premature detachment of the placenta, high blood pressure, and stillbirth. Infants born to cocaine-using mothers are more likely to have low birth weight. They may also have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The effects of cocaine on the baby may include:

  • Growth defects

  • Hyperactivity

  • Behavioral problems

  • Learning problems

Using dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine can cause miscarriage and preterm birth. Newborns exposed to these drugs in pregnancy often have signs of withdrawal, like jitteriness, trouble sleeping, and feeding. They can also later have problems with tremors and muscle tone. They may also be at higher risk for SIDS. 

Heroin and other opiates, including methadone, can cause major withdrawal in the baby. Some symptoms last several weeks. Babies born to opiate-addicted mothers are at higher risk for apnea (stopping breathing) and SIDS. These babies also have feeding problems.

If a woman stops taking drugs during her first trimester, she increases her chances of having a healthy baby.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daniel N Sacks MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather Trevino
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2020
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