Heroin, a drug that affects the central nervous system, is always dangerous for the person using it, as it is one of the most addictive opiate drugs and also has one of the highest rates of overdose.
However, heroin use during pregnancy is also extremely dangerous for the unborn child, as heroin is passed through the placenta to the baby just as oxygen and important nutrients are.
Treatment for heroin addiction during pregnancy is a delicate process, as stopping too suddenly may cause damage to the baby.
The right treatment program can help pregnant women addicted to heroin, prescription drugs, or other substances enter recovery.
What Are The Dangers Of Heroin Use For Pregnant Women?
The following are some of the possible dangers that a pregnant woman and her unborn child face when she uses heroin or other illicit drugs while pregnant.
Birth defects can happen virtually anywhere on a baby’s body and can be outwardly visible, internal, or chemical in nature.
The birth defects and malformations linked to heroin use can range from mild to severe and include effects like hypoglycemia and intracranial hemorrhage.
Abusing opioids during pregnancy has also been linked to defects of the brain, spinal cord, and spine, as well as in the heart.
A placental abruption occurs when the placenta prematurely becomes separated from the uterus and deprives the unborn baby of oxygen and nutrients.
Not only does this put the fetus at immediate risk, but it also can cause large amounts of internal bleeding within the mother. It is not uncommon for a woman in this position to need a blood transfusion.
A placental abruption is a medical emergency with up to 15% of placental abruptions resulting in fetal death. Though more rare, a placental abruption can also result in maternal death.
Low Birth Weight
Low birth weight occurs when a baby is born weighing less than 5.5 pounds, and is not uncommon in babies born to mothers who used heroin while pregnant.
While some babies are simply smaller than average, for others a low birth weight can mean poor feeding, long-term problems, and developmental issues.
Babies with low birth weights also tend to have smaller head circumferences and poor weight gain, in addition to having a higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Risk Of Premature Birth
Heroin use during pregnancy can increase the risk for preterm birth, which is any birth that occurs before the baby is 37 weeks along (the final trimester).
The severity of complications that result will depend on how premature the baby ends up being. A baby born at 35 or 36 weeks may be healthy and simply need some extra monitoring or perhaps a small amount of time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
A baby born closer to 30 weeks or less will likely have more severe issues that require a lengthy stay in the NICU and that may affect them into childhood.
Risk Of Stillbirth
Use of heroin or other drugs during pregnancy can also increase the risk for stillbirth, which is when the baby is born deceased after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Research has shown that drug use during pregnancy can make the risk of stillbirth up to two or three times more likely.
The link between heroin use and stillbirth is not entirely clear, but is likely due to the fact that heroin causes growth defects and placental problems, both of which are major causes for stillbirth.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)
Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) occurs when a baby is born in a state of withdrawal from heroin, or any substance, because of their mother’s drug use during pregnancy.
Babies with NAS experience a lot of discomfort during the first six months or so of their lives, and often need extra comfort and calories to support them.
In severe cases of opioid dependence, the baby may be treated with methadone or a similar drug approved by their doctor.
Withdrawal from heroin and opioids in general can be very uncomfortable for the person who is trying to stop using.
Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:
- runny nose
- high blood pressure and heart rate
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain
Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and are usually the biggest obstacle a person will face after deciding to stop using heroin.
Risk Of Drug Overdose
Any time a person uses heroin they are putting themselves at risk for potential overdose, even from the very first time they use it.
Because of the common practice currently to “cut” heroin with other drugs like fentanyl, heroin overdoses are even more common than they used to be.
Even if using cut heroin does not result in an overdose, it can still be dangerous because bulking agents that heroin can be cut with, such as laundry detergent or rat poison, are poisonous to both the pregnant woman and baby.
Treatment For Pregnant Women With Opioid Addictions
It is not recommended that women who use heroin while pregnant try to stop using it suddenly, because this can trigger preterm labor, fetal distress, and even miscarraige.
The best treatment option for a pregnant woman with addiction is through medication-assisted treatment programs for opioid disorders.
Methadone and buprenorphine have been shown to be safe for the treatment of pregnant women with opioid addictions.
Any medication for addiction should also be combined with therapy or counseling to help prevent relapse and also address the mother’s mental health. This may require a hospital stay or inpatient heroin treatment.
It is also recommended that pregnant women do not attempt to detox on their own and that they always discuss the risks with their physician or healthcare provider before proceeding.
The best rehab programs for pregnant women will offer both substance abuse treatment, as well as prenatal care and postpartum followup.
Find Help For Heroin Drug Use At Bedrock
Bedrock Recovery Center is here for you if you or a loved one have a heroin addiction, addiction to prescription opioids, or any other substance use disorder while pregnant.
Even if you just have questions about drug and alcohol abuse, don’t hesitate to call us and speak with any of our experienced substance abuse treatment specialists.
Recovery is just a phone call away.
Bedrock Recovery Editorial Team
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This page does not provide medical advice.