Opioid painkillers such as codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone can be risky to take during pregnancy, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Opioid medications include prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Tylenol-3.
The CDC study found that babies exposed to opioid drugs before or early on in the pregnancy were twice as likely to have hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a life-threatening condition where the left side of the heart is extremely underdeveloped. Infants with this serious heart defect often do not survive past one year; others must undergo expensive, invasive procedures and long hospital stays to save their lives. In many cases, even if the child survives, he or she requires lifelong medical treatment and is unable to lead a normal life.
Women who take opioid drugs during pregnancy are also more likely to deliver babies with other serious birth defects such as spina bifida, gastroschisis (an abdominal wall defect where the intestines protrude out of the body), hydrocephaly (abnormal fluid buildup in the brain), and congenital glaucoma.
The CDC study points out that the overall number of birth defects is relatively low. However, a woman who is pregnant or may become pregnant should discuss the risks with her doctor before using opioid pain relievers. "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," said the study's lead author, Cheryl S. Broussard of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.