Updated: 2019, Aug 1

Opioids and their Effects on Pregnancy – A New Study

Complications of Opioid Use During Pregnancy

Opioids are one of the strongest (and usually the most effective) group of drugs. People use them all the time to relieve pain.

Pregnancy is one of the most sensitive periods in woman’s life, and every drug intake has to be thoughtfully considered. Opioids and their effects on pregnancy are discussed below.

What are Opioids?

Opioids Medication

Opioids are medications that help with the treatment of acute pain. They are also widely used for severe and chronic pain, pain after surgeries, etc.

The studies have shown that opioids are safe when used properly, and if a person takes the recommended dosage, there shouldn’t be any consequences.

Opioids include:

  • Oxycodone and naloxone
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Meperidine
  • Hydromorphone

How Opioids affect our bodies?

Opioid drugs affect our brain and our body by connecting with opioid receptors. The opioid receptors are located in our brain, gastrointestinal tract, and our spinal cord. When an opioid is attached with the opioid receptor, it prevents the feeling of pain. However, if a person gets used to the feeling of pain prevention, opioids can have side effects like:

Opioids Affect

The number of newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome nearly tripled in 10 years due to increasing opiate use among pregnant women, a new study shows.

  • Drowsiness – Opioids decrease the amount of saliva in the mouth. The saliva is important for flushing away all the bacteria in one’s mouth that would usually cause decay of teeth.
  • Nausea and vomiting – Occur in three different ways such as delayed gastric emptying, increasing of vestibular sensitivity, and through stimulation of chemoreceptor trigger zone.
  • Constipation – It is one of the most frequent effects of opioid use and person suffers infrequent and hard bowel movements.
  • Depress respiration – Opioids decrease the brain’s ability to control the breathing process. After some time, irregular breathing can damage one’s heart due to the insufficient amount of air in lungs.
  • Sleep apnea – Opioids can lead to sleep apnea (a short period of time during sleep when a person stops breathing). The higher the dosage, the greater is the risk of gaining sleep apnea.
  • Increased sensitivity – Opioids can sometimes make the pain worse due to the ability of medications to lead to increased sensitivity, when a person becomes overly sensitive and feels pain related to non-painful things.
  • Overdose – Self-explanatory.
  • Low sex hormones – Patients who take opioid drugs experience decreased level of testosterone or estrogen.
  • Tolerance – After some time, patients usually increase the dosage (by themselves) because they are convinced the prescribed dosage does not work anymore. That also leads to addiction to the opioid drugs use.
  • Physical dependence – Patient’s body becomes dependent on the medication, and if a person suddenly stops taking them, it can lead to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, muscle pain, anxiety, and irritability.

How to take Opioid drugs?

Like many other drugs, when taken according to prescribed dosages they are safe and effective. Here is how you should take opioids:

  • You should only take the recommended and prescribed dosage
  • If you have any questions about the dosage, call your doctor
  • Before getting Opioid from your doctor, it is important to inform them about other medications you use
  • When taking Opioids, you must not drink alcohol, use illegal drugs, or use sleeping pills and muscle relaxants
  • In case of acute pain, do not take someone else’s opioid to make the pain go away.
  • When taking Opioid, you should avoid using heavy machinery, driving, and avoid decision-making processes. The reason a person should avoid driving is that opioids usually have a sedating effect and the person gets sleepy afterward.

How Opioids affect the pregnancy?

Opioid drugs and their abuse is becoming one of the most serious problems in the world. Even more disturbing is the fact that 28% of privately insured women in all age groups from 15 to 44 use opioid drugs regularly. The statistics go higher for medical-enrolled women (39%).

However, during pregnancy, women do not stay away from opioid drugs. Like all other drugs, opioids have their own side effects, and they can become serious during pregnancy. They don’t only affect the mother’s health, but the health of her baby, as well.

It is important to mention that opioids do not general lead to baby’s malformations.

Dr Sack Says

Opioids during pregnancy can lead to complications like:

  • The withdrawal of opioids in the third trimester often leads to premature labor.
  • When opioids are regularly consumed during pregnancy, they can lead to spontaneous abortion.
  • Opioids use can cause neurological and heart problems in the baby.
  • Regular use of opioids during pregnancy (and their sudden withdrawal) can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, rhinorrhea (runny nose), and runny eyes. Additionally, they can cause insomnia and anxiety. Further, consequences of opioid use and their withdrawal can include abdominal cramps, uterine irritability, preterm labor, fetal hypoxia, and fetal death.

Intake of opioids during pregnancy

If a woman is not physically or physiologically dependent on opioids, it is safe to prescribe the drug with the minimal dosage. It is strongly recommended to consult the doctor and ask for his or her opinion.


Opioids are strong and can often lead to addiction, this situation becomes even more severe when the pregnant women are involved. When it comes to pregnancy, occasional opioid intake does not lead to complications; however, regular usage of opioids can have serious effects on the baby and the mother. Additionally, even sudden withdrawal of opioids can lead to severe complications, and they usually start 6 to 24 hours after withdrawal.

Bottom line, some opioids are not damaging for mother and baby’s health if occasionally taken in the minimal dosages. The best thing to do is to consult the doctor.


Peony C Echavez

Peony is a registered nurse and former Director of Nursing services for a large nursing facility. She has written web content for a lar

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