Prescription opioids during pregnancy

KEY POINTS

  • Prescription opioids are painkillers used to treat pain after an injury or surgery. Opioids include codeine, fentanyl, morphine and oxycodone.

  • If you take opioids during pregnancy, they can cause serious problems for your baby, like premature birth and drug withdrawal called NAS.

  • Even if you use an opioid exactly like your health care provider says to, it still may cause NAS in your baby.

  • Don’t stop taking an opioid without talking to your provider first. Quitting suddenly can cause severe problems for your baby. 

  • If you’re not pregnant and taking an opioid, use effective birth control until you’re no longer taking the medicine.

What are prescription opioids?

Prescription opioids are painkillers (medicine used to relieve pain) your health care provider may prescribe if you’ve been injured or had surgery. They're sometimes used to treat a cough or diarrhea. A prescription medicine is one your health care provider says you can take to treat a health condition. You need a prescription (order for medicine) from your health care provider to get the medicine. 

Prescription opioids include:

  • Codeine and hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin®)
  • Fentanyl (brand name Actiq®, Duragesic®, Sublimaze®)
  • Morphine (brand names Kadian®, Avinza®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
  • Tramadol (brand names ConZip®, Ryzolt®, Ultram®)

The street drug heroin also is an opioid.   

What problems can opioids cause during pregnancy?

Using opioids during pregnancy can cause problems for your baby, including:

  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (also called NAS). NAS happens when a baby is exposed to a drug in the womb before birth and goes through withdrawal from the drug after birth. NAS most often is caused when a woman takes opioids during pregnancy. NAS can cause serious problems for a baby, like being born too small and having breathing problems. Even if you use an opioid exactly as your health care provider tells you to, it may cause NAS in your baby. So tell your prenatal care provider about any opioid you take, even if it’s prescribed to you by another health care provider. If another health care provider prescribes you an opioid, make sure she knows you’re pregnant.
  • Birth defects, including heart defects. Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops, or in how the body works.
  • Premature birth. This is birth that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born early may have more health problems at birth and later in life than babies born full term.
  • Preterm labor. This is labor that starts too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Quitting opioids suddenly (going cold turkey) during pregnancy can cause preterm labor. Preterm labor can lead to premature birth.
  • Stillbirth. This is the death of a baby in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

If you’re not pregnant and you’re using opioids, use effective birth control until you’re ready to get pregnant. This can help prevent complications when you do get pregnant.

Can you abuse prescription opioids?

Yes. Prescription drug abuse is a serious and growing problem in the United States. Opioids, like codeine, fentanyl and hydrocodone, are the most commonly abused prescription drugs in this country. Sometimes people use a prescription opioid and become addicted to it. Drug addiction is a brain condition that makes you use drugs, even if they’re harmful to you. Addiction affects your self-control and your ability to stop taking a drug. When a person becomes addicted to prescription opioids, she may try to buy them illegally. People often start using heroin after becoming addicted to prescription opioids.  Sometimes opioids are mixed with street drugs like heroin and cocaine.

When your health care provider gives you a prescription for a medicine, he tells you exactly how much to take, how often to take it and how long to take it. If you abuse prescription opioids (take them differently than your health care provider says), it can cause addiction and other serious health problems for you. If you're pregnant, it can cause problems for your baby, too. This is why it's important to use prescription opioids exactly as your health care provider tells you to. It's also important that any health care provider who prescribes you opioids knows that your pregnant.

When you take any medicine:

  • Don’t take more medicine than your health care provider says you can take.
  • Don’t take it with alcohol or other drugs.
  • Don’t use someone else’s prescription medicine.

If you're pregnant and need help to stop using opioids, taking drugs like methadone or buprenorphine may help you quit. These drugs can help you reduce your need for opioids in a way that's safe for you and your baby. Talk to your health care provider to see if this kind of treatment is right for you.

Where can you get help to stop abusing prescription drugs, including opioids?

If you need help to stop abusing prescription drugs, talk to your health care provider. Or contact: 

More information

Last reviewed: July 2016