Drug addiction continues to be a huge problem both here and, particularly so, in the US, where they are in the grips of what has been called an ‘opiate epidemic’. As well as illegal opiates such as heroin, more and more people are developing prescription drug addictions where they are developing a dependency on a drug a doctor has prescribed them for a legitimate reason.

The effects of both drug addiction and prescription drug addiction can never be underestimated. As well as the negative impact on the mental and physical health of the addicted individual, there is a host of harmful consequences for those closest to the addict, especially their children.

Pregnant women who are addicted to drugs are also putting the lives of their unborn babies at risk because the drugs they use will pass through the placenta and into the bloodstream of the baby. This can lead to miscarriage, congenital disabilities or developmental problems for the child in later life.

Growing Problem

Sadly, a study in the US has suggested that the number of babies born addicted to drugs such as heroin and prescription opiates has more than doubled in the past ten years. Babies born suffering from withdrawal symptoms are said to have neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which can be very traumatic for the baby. The type of withdrawal symptoms the baby experiences will depend on the drug the mother was using and the severity of her addiction. It can include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Blotchy skin
  • Excessive high-pitched crying
  • Fever
  • Excessive sucking
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Trembling
  • Hyperactive reflexes.

In 2009, there were 2.8 babies born with NAS for every 1,000 births; that number increased to 7.3 babies per 1,000 births in 2013.

Dr Joshua Brown from the University of Kentucky and lead author of the study said, “The drug policies of the early 2000s were effective in reducing supply – we have seen a decrease in methamphetamine abuse, and there have been reductions in some aspects of prescription drug abuse. However, the indirect results, mainly the increase in heroin abuse, were likely not anticipated, and we are just starting to see these.”

Wide-Ranging Problem

Figures released by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) found that the number of babies born with NAS varied depending on the state. For example, the number of babies born with NAS in Hawaii was 0.7 per 1,000 births in 2013. By comparison, that figure was 33.4 per 1,000 births in West Virginia.

Dr Brown said, “We know that certain states are harder hit by the opioid/heroin abuse epidemic, with about ten states contributing half of all neonatal abstinence syndrome cases. These states are often more rural and impoverished areas of the U.S. such as Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia.”

Alcohol and the Unborn Baby

It is not just illegal and prescription drugs that can have an effect on the unborn baby. Those who abuse alcohol while they are pregnant are also risking the health of their baby. Babies born to alcoholic mothers often suffer from a condition known as foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and the effects of this can be wide-ranging. Babies born with FAS often suffer from the following:

  • Change to facial structure
  • Mild to severe brain damage
  • Low birth weight
  • Learning difficulties
  • Communication difficulties.

FAS is a permanent condition that can affect children long-term.

Overcoming Addiction While Pregnant

Those who discover they are pregnant while suffering from either alcohol or drug addiction should consider treatment as soon as possible for the health of their unborn child. Often, those with addiction do not realise they are pregnant for a while and then worry that their drug or alcohol abuse may have already caused irreversible damage.

While this can happen, the sooner you stop drinking or taking drugs, the better for your baby. Sometimes babies are born without any lasting damage, despite their mother abusing substances while they were pregnant.

It is important that you tell your treatment provider that you are expecting a child because the type of treatment you are given will vary and some forms of medication are not suitable for pregnant women. Also, detoxing can be quite complicated for pregnant women, so it is vital that those who are supervising your detox are aware of your condition. How they react in an emergency situation will be affected if you are pregnant.

In the case of drug addiction, the best time to detox is usually during the second trimester. You may be offered medication such as methadone or buprenorphine if you have a heroin addiction and while babies born to mothers who have used these drugs tend to be healthier than those born to mothers who were abusing heroin, the effects on the baby can still be quite serious. The best way to protect your baby is to quit drugs altogether and try to overcome your addiction with the help and support of qualified counsellors, therapists and doctors.

Source: More U.S. babies born addicted to opiates like heroin (Reuters)