Drug Abuse and Pregnancy – Two Lives are at Risk!

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Pregnancy is one of the most important periods in many women’s lives around the world. With it comes a lot of responsibility, as the woman suddenly becomes directly responsible for another human being that is fully dependent on her. Her actions no longer directly impact only her life.

What if a woman smokes, likes to drink, or has a substance use disorder?

We widely know that women are not supposed to maintain their habits into the pregnancy. However, sometimes it is easier said than done as addiction tends to have a very strong grasp on people. At times getting pregnant helps women quit their habits, as their maternal instincts wake up and priorities shift, but unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Most people are aware of the dangers that illegal or social drugs such as tobacco and alcohol pose, but even some OTC medications can have a disastrous influence on the baby’s development.

The effects of substances on an unborn child range from serious mutations of their physique while still in the womb to behavioral problems in the future.

Sadly, a lot of pregnant women worldwide still persist in drugs use, smoking and drinking. How is that possible?

Sometimes factors such as an abusive relationship or an underlying mental disorder influence the woman’s decision making. Even the law is a factor for some women, as in certain countries they can face jail time for drug use during pregnancy.

Let’s take a closer look at what can happen in such a scenario.

pregnancy and drug abuse

How Does Drug Abuse Affect the Fetus?

The fetus receives the nutrients and oxygen it needs to survive and develop from the mother through the placenta. Just like oxygen and nutrients, drugs taken by the mother also cross the placental barrier. As a result, they can reach the baby’s tissue and organs.

Here’s how drugs can adversely affect the fetus:

  • Toxic elements in drugs, like nicotine and cancer-causing agents in tobacco, can directly harm the fetus, causing organ damage, congenital disabilities, and even death.
  • Drugs can inhibit the functioning of the placenta. For example, drugs narrow blood vessels, therefore, causing the fetus to receives less oxygen and nutrients from the mother. This can cause low birth weight and/or under-developed organs.
  • Drugs can indirectly affect how the placenta functions. Many drugs lower blood pressure. If the mother’s blood pressure drops too rapidly, there is less blood flow to the placenta, again, reducing the supply of oxygen and nutrients delivered to the fetus.
  • Drugs can indirectly affect how the placenta functions. Many drugs lower blood pressure. If the mother’s blood pressure drops too rapidly, there is less blood flow to the placenta, again, reducing the supply of oxygen and nutrients delivered to the fetus.

What Are The Effects Of Pre-Natal Drug Abuse On The Child?

pregnancy and drugs

The effects of in utero drug exposure continue to manifest after the childbirth. Unfortunately, sometimes it goes well into adolescence and adulthood.

Some of these conditions have been closely observed and researched.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

It is caused by a maternal abuse of opioids and other addictive drugs such as benzodiazepines, alcohol or SSRI’s used to treat depression. Babies born with NAS have a higher risk of experiencing seizures and developing breathing problems. They also exhibit withdrawal symptoms after birth. Such situations can require intensive treatment and involve a lengthy hospital stay to detox the baby.

In 2012 alone 21 732 babies were born with NAS – that’s 5.8% of babies born that year.Journal of Perinatology

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Maternal abuse of alcohol greatly increases the risk of the child developing fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These disorders cause abnormal facial features, stunted growth, vision and hearing difficulties. Also, it can also impair the functioning of the central nervous system. Children with FAS or FASD often suffer from cognitive and behavioral deficiencies. These manifest as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and behavioral abnormalities. Many symptoms of FAS and FASD continue throughout the life of the person.

Low birth weight, premature delivery, and feeding difficulty associated with prenatal exposure to substances also cause a number of problems. These conditions can cause the newborn to have a weak immune system, experience slow or stunted physical growth, inadequate organ development, and impaired mental and emotional development.

What Are The Effects Of Drug Abuse On Pregnant Women?

Maternal drug abuse harms the fetus in several indirect ways, in addition to the most obvious, direct ways.

Neglect of health and personal hygiene

A woman addicted to drugs usually spends most of her physical and mental energy trying to sustain her habits. Because of this, she probably isn’t willing or able to take care of herself properly. Eating nutritious meals, practicing healthy hygiene habits, and keeping up with the doctor’s appointments are not her priorities and the results of this are devastating for her baby.

Hazardous environment

Furthermore, the risk of the mother contracting some disease and then passing it to her unborn child is higher due to either unsanitary conditions or dangers of exposure to HIV associated with drug use.
The would-be mother addicted to drugs may visit dangerous places and have dangerous friends. This can increase her risk of exposure to drug-related violence, which of course, can harm the fetus as well.


Drug use can lead to a miscarriage which can potentially be a traumatic experience for the woman, that then leads to various mental health problems.

Are All Drugs Dangerous During Pregnancy?

pregnant with drugs

Pregnant women should be very wary of taking any drug during pregnancy. The following are some of the drugs and substances that may harm the fetus.

Babies of mothers who abuse cocaine during pregnancy tend to have cognitive difficulties. They are also at a greater risk of being born with various heart and urinary tract defects. Abusing cocaine or methamphetamine increases the risk of miscarriage early in the pregnancy or preterm labor further along.

Similarly, babies of mothers who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy have an increased risk of being born with heart defects.

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of the child developing FAS or FASD.

It is easy to understand how illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco harm the fetus. However, it may come as a surprise to many that OTC and prescription drugs can also harm the unborn baby.

Scientists have proven that the medicine thalidomide – used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women – causes severe congenital disabilities in human beings.

Isotretinoin, commonly prescribed to treat skin disorders, can cause congenital disabilities, if a woman conceives within two weeks after stopping this slow-release drug.

Caffeine is also a psychoactive drug. The mother should only have it in moderate quantities during pregnancy. Doctors believe that excessive caffeine intake during pregnancy can cause low birth weight and irritability in newborn babies.

Drug Abuse and Pregnancy Statistics

Take a look at the following numbers; they prove how rampant drug abuse during pregnancy is in the United States:

  • As many as 625,000 infants have exposure to prenatal substance abuse annually in the U.S.
  • About 50 percent of pregnant women take prescription and OTC medicine and use illicit and social drugs during pregnancy.
  • Only about 20 percent of the women who smoke can quit during pregnancy, according to the Merck Manual.
  • About 90 percent of all drug-abusing women in the U.S. are of reproductive age. This is according to the findings of a study published in Current Opinion in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

PREGNANT and mental health

Pregnancy And Mental Health

The link between Mental health and substance abuse is evident, and women with mental disorders are more susceptible to drug abuse. However, even if there are no substances involved, mental health issues may indirectly cause harm to the fetus.

Depression can influence a pregnant woman’s life in many ways. Depressed people tend to neglect their health, hygiene, nutrition or doctor’s appointments – all of which can cause harm to the unborn child. In more severe cases depression can give rise to suicidal thoughts or acts of aggression towards the baby.

Depression is common during pregnancy—between 14 percent and 23 percent of pregnant women will experience depressive symptoms while pregnant.ACOG

Post-Partum depression sometimes occurs from a week to a month after birth. Its causes are hard to pinpoint, but many believe the cause is a mix of hormonal and emotional changes as well as sleep-deprivation that follows in the first years of caring for the newborn. Women affected by this are more likely to cope, with the use of substances or return to old habits such as smoking or drinking.

What Should Pregnant Women Do To NOT Expose Their Unborn Babies To Drugs?

Even without knowing the specific disorders and the amount of damage that the use of substances can do to the unborn baby one can say that doing drugs is a bad idea when pregnant. However, what can a woman do if she is not able to “just stop”?


The only way in most cases is to get professional help. For many women, getting pregnant could be a “moment of clarity” that could prove helpful in undergoing treatment. Doctors and specialists know which drugs can be administered to an expecting mother to help her get clean.

It is especially important in the case of pregnancies because they tend to be unstable and fragile, and severe withdrawal symptoms can harm both parties involved. A doctor will know best how to help a woman quit drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

There have been legal issues concerning pregnant women seeking substance use disorder treatment. In some cases, they ended up facing jail time. To prevent more of these kinds of disastrous situations, organizations such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society of Addiction Medicine have taken action to protect the affected women.

Women should also be wary of using OTC drugs, as the damage they cause is comparable even to that of heroin or alcohol. Most manufacturers mention whether or not a drug is safe for pregnant women. This level of cautiousness should also be applied to taking dietary supplements and vitamins. It is important to take note that “natural” or “herbal” medication or supplements are not always safe. A doctor will know about specially-formulated prenatal vitamins that are safe for both mom and baby.

Prescription drugs to treat or manage a disorder cause about 2-3 percent of all congenital disabilities in the U.S. However, you may have asthma, hypertension, epilepsy, or depression, and it is important that you manage these serious conditions during pregnancy for the good of both you and your baby.