Rate of Opioid Addiction While Pregnant Quadruples Since 1999
The opioid epidemic continues unabated in the United States, with 2 million people abusing prescription painkillers and 591,000 abusing heroin. Contrary to stereotypes about opioid addiction affecting predominantly men and poor people, the current opioid epidemic cuts across age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Women are particularly vulnerable to opioid addiction, as they have higher rates of chronic pain, receive more prescription painkillers, use opioid painkillers for longer periods of time, and become dependent on opioids more quickly than men. With higher rates of opioid addiction among women come concerns about opioid addiction while pregnancy. Opioid use during pregnancy leads to a variety of harmful effects for mothers and their babies.
Rate of Opioid Addiction During Pregnancy
Overall, rates of opioid addiction among women rose an astonishing 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared to 237% among men. Heroin overdoses in women tripled from 2010 to 2013. Given that young adults are most likely to suffer from opioid addiction, this leaves thousands of women of childbearing years vulnerable to opioid abuse.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quantified the risk of opioid use disorder among pregnant women. The report found that the number of women abusing opioids at the time of childbirth quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. This parallels the overall trend of quadrupling opioid addiction among women of all ages.
In 2014, the latest year for which data were available, approximately 6.5 per 1,000 pregnant women suffered from an opioid use disorder. Rates rose among all 28 states with enough data to analyze, with the sharpest spike in opioid addiction during pregnancy observed in Maine, Vermont, New Mexico, and West Virginia. These states are at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.
Effects of Opioid Addiction While Pregnant
When you take opioids, they circulate throughout your brain and body. Because of the shared blood between a mother and her unborn baby, that means that any drugs taken by a pregnant woman also affect the baby. However, the dose that gets the mother high may be far too much for a tiny baby to handle. Chronic use of opioids during pregnancy leads to a condition that doctors call neonatal abstinence syndrome. Basically, this means that a newborn baby goes through opioid withdrawal during the first few days of life.
Between 55 and 94% of babies born to mothers suffering from opioid addiction develop neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Babies with NAS may have:
- Tremors or shaking
- Sleep problems
- Excessive crying
- Stuffy nose
- Difficulty feeding
Although these symptoms usually go away over time, the baby may have developmental delays, including learning problems. These problems can last for the baby’s entire life. Additionally, pregnant women using opioids have a higher risk of miscarriage, stillborn babies, premature labor, and birth complications.
How to Treat Opioid Addiction During Pregnancy
The CDC report documented the number of women abusing opioids at the time of labor and delivery. By that point, the fetus has already undergone considerable damage that may be irreversible. The best approach is to prevent women from becoming pregnant while suffering from an opioid use disorder. Preventative actions such as counseling young people about the dangers of opioid use, offering alternative (non-opioid) treatments for chronic pain, and expanding access to contraceptives are a good place to start.
For people already addicted to opioids, the goal is to access treatment resources as quickly as possible. If we can intervene early, before these young women get pregnant, thousands of babies may be born to healthy mothers rather than those suffering from addiction. This not only transforms the babies’ lives, but it also prevents massive public health expenses.
The best treatment option for individuals experiencing opioid addiction is medical detox followed by supportive aftercare. Medical detox protocols tailored to you as an individual allow you to receive drugs that cleanse your system of opioids. During this process, you receive 24/7 supervision and medical support. After the withdrawal process is complete, you will transition to a supportive aftercare environment. Here, you will engage in therapies to heal your body, address the root causes of addiction, learn new coping strategies, and work through emotional challenges.
For women who are already pregnant, it is essential to get help as soon as possible. Overcoming opioid addiction in pregnancy early could prevent some of the most severe problems in your baby. If you are pregnant and struggling with opioid use, talk to your obstetrician immediately and have an honest conversation about your opioid use. You can work together with your doctor to make a plan to get the help you and your baby need.