The Painkiller Epidemic’s Tiniest Victims
It’s no secret that prescription painkiller addiction has surged among young people, but the littlest victims have no say over their circumstances. More and more hospitals across the country are reporting an increase in the number of opiate-dependent newborns being treated for withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal for babies born to addicted mothers can be agonizing. Babies who are dependent upon painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin can experience symptoms within hours of being born, including hypertonia, or stiff limbs. These vulnerable babies can also experience feeding difficulties and gastrointestinal problems including vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. Others may suffer from difficult breathing, irritability, tremors or insomnia and at times may be inconsolable. In serious cases, infants can experience seizures.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has found that the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. Women of childbearing age who take opiates are a significant health concern. Some babies who are born addicted to opiates have been exposed to heroin or prescription painkillers in the womb. Others can become dependent upon methadone if the mother is taking it as part of her addiction treatment. Opiate withdrawal in infants is referred to as neonatal abstinence syndrome. It can kick in shortly after birth and may last several days, even a few months. A typical treatment protocol is to administer morphine or sedatives to ease babies through this difficult time.
Babies exposed to opiates in the womb can be born prematurely, suffer low birth weight or have intrauterine growth retardation. The long-term effects may not be fully understood and can depend on the drug used, the dosage and the length and severity of the mother’s drug use. Just because many painkillers are prescribed by a doctor does not mean they are safe to take during pregnancy. Women should always be up front with their doctors about all legal and illicit drug use during this time. In addition to the health consequences of opiate use during pregnancy, this can also result in a poor bonding experience for mothers and their babies. What should be a magical time between a mother and her child can become quite frustrating and hard to deal with.