A study published in the March issue of American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that Opioid painkillers, such as hydrocodone or oxycodone (Oxycontin), taken shortly before or early into pregnancy raise the risk of birth defects.
Previous studies have drawn a possible link between codeine and birth defects. But, “The effects of opioid use on the developing fetus during pregnancy are poorly understood,” the researchers wrote.
National Birth Defects Prevention Study (NBDPS)
The NBDS study analyzed more than 17,000 interviews conducted with mothers of infants with birth defects. The study drew upon data collected from 1997 through 2005.
For the interviews, researchers asked the mothers about the medications they took during their pregnancy and three months following. The answers were compared with 6,701 mothers of babies born without birth defects. Any illicit use of painkillers was not assessed.
Hydrocodone – This drug is only available in combination with other ingredients. Some are used to relieve moderate to severe pain while others are used to relieve cough.
This drug is in FDA pregnancy category C. This medication may be harmful to an unborn baby.
Oxycontin (oxycodone) – This drug is a narcotic pain reliever similar to morphine. It is used to treat moderate to severe pain that is expected to last for an extended period of time.
This drug falls under FDA pregnancy category B.
Vicodin – This drug is a tablet that contains a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone.
This drug falls under FDA pregnancy category C.
Heart Defect Risk
The risk of several types of heart defects was associated with opioid drugs. This class of medications more than doubled the chances of having a baby born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Other birth defects associated with the drugs include spina bifida, congenital glaucoma, and hydrocephaly.
While this particular study found there is an increased risk, birth defects such as hypoplastic left heart syndrome are rare, say researchers. However, the risk of opioid use and birth defects should still be discussed between patient and doctor.
The safety of most medications taken during pregnancy has yet to be established. Risks are influenced by many factors such as – how much medication is taken, at what stage of the pregnancy and health conditions she had prior to pregnancy as well as other medications taken.
Studies continue to be done about how prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and dietary or herbal products used during pregnancy affect the risk of birth defects.
An estimated five million babies are born in the United States each year. Of them, about three percent are born with major birth defects.
Please also read our article titled, “Drugs that May Cause Birth Defects if Taken During Pregnancy.”