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Using Heroin During Pregnancy: How Opioids Impact Mothers and Babies

Use of Heroin During Pregnancy

Using heroin during pregnancy can cause serious health problems for you and your baby. The same can be said for most other powerful opioids. There is no denying that the consumption of such potent substances put both you and your unborn child at risk. However, the stigma surrounding heroin use with mothers or pregnant women is a terrible barrier that keeps women from seeking help. Therefore, women struggling with heroin during pregnancy should be given every opportunity to receive comprehensive treatment in a supportive environment.

When looking for help with heroin addiction, for you or a loved one, there are many things to consider. That is why before making a decision, it is important to educate yourself on the basics of heroin addiction and proper treatment.

What is heroin?

For family members of loved ones, it might be hard to understand heroin addiction on the most basic level. So, let us start with the basics.

Heroin is an opiate, which is a kind of drug naturally derived from the flowering opium poppy plant. Some people use the terms opiate and opioid interchangeably, but it is important to note that while all opioids are opiates, not all opiates are opioids. Moreover, opioids are synthetic or semi-synthetic opiates. This includes a lot of prescription painkillers, such as:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine

Many of these drugs are utilized after an injury or surgery, and require a prescription from your health care provider.

Conversely, semi-synthetic opioids include:

  • Heroin
  • OxyCodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxymorphone

Then there are synthetic opioids, such as:

  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Meperidine
  • Tramadol
  • Carfentanil

As previously mentioned, heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid. This illicit street drug commonly comes in the form of a white or brown powder. It can also be a black, sticky goo typically referred to as black tar heroin. While most people think of needles when they think of heroin, this is not the only way the drug is consumed. Heroin can be:

  • Injected
  • Smoked
  • Snorted
  • Sniffed

How can heroin harm your health?

Considering how potent and unpredictable this kind of street drug can be, there are a lot of ways heroin can do serious harm to your health. On one hand, heroin affects your central nervous system, and alters how the brain works. In addition to a number of side-effects of using heroin, the drug can cause many serious health problems, including: 

  • Coma
  • Heart infections
  • Lung infections 
  • Blood borne illnesses like HIV or hepatitis
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Respiratory failure

For women using heroin during pregnancy, each of these conditions can become all the more severe. One of the key ways that heroin causes severe and lasting harm to your health is through addiction.

Drug addiction, or substance use disorder, is a chronic brain condition that causes individuals to use drugs, even if they are harmful. Many women struggling with addiction do have a desire to stop using, but often find that they cannot once intense physical and mental dependence has set in.

Some mothers develop an addiction to opioids that they are actually legally prescribed. However, eventually they may try to obtain them illegally once they are no longer able to get them from a doctor. Furthermore, many of these women end up seeking out heroin because it is a much stronger substance and can be easier to find on the illicit market.

What health problems can heroin cause in pregnancy?

Overall, the health risks for anyone using heroin are significant. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that using heroin during pregnancy can be dangerous, and even life-threatening, for you and your child. For pregnant women, overcoming heroin addiction isn’t just about their own safety, but the well-being of their unborn baby. Using heroin during pregnancy may cause serious problems for the child, including:

Birth defects

Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. Some of these defects actually change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. Subsequently, these conditions can create issues with how the body develops, how the body works, or the overall health of the child. In many cases, these babies require special care at birth, and possibly later in life.

Placental abruption

During pregnancy, the placenta supplies food and oxygen to the baby through the umbilical cord. With placental abruption, the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth. This very serious condition can cause very heavy bleeding, making it potentially fatal for both mother and baby.

Premature birth

Preterm labor is when the body goes into the process of giving birth too early, leading to premature birth when the baby is born too early. This is any time before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies need about 40 weeks in the womb in order to grow and develop before birth. Using heroin during pregnancy can cause premature birth, which often cause babies to have serious health problems at birth and later in life because they are not fully developed.

Low birthweight

Using heroin during pregnancy can also cause low birthweight. This is when a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. It is important to remember that babies born with low birthweight can be healthy, even if they are small. However, low birthweight in babies can also cause serious health issues. Many of these babies have trouble eating, gaining weight, and fighting off infections.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, also called NAS, is a group of conditions that happen when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb before birth that cause withdrawals after birth. Opioids are the drugs most commonly related to NAS. Sadly, rates of children suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome have increased over the years with the opioid epidemic. Using heroin during pregnancy puts an unborn child at an elevated risk of experiencing this condition.

Stillbirth

This is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The majority of these cases happen before a woman goes into labor. However, a small percentage of them do occur during labor and birth. Having a risk factor for stillbirth, such as using heroin during pregnancy, does not mean for sure that a woman will have a stillbirth. Furthermore, knowing about and reducing your risk factors may help prevent stillbirth. 

Sudden infant death syndrome

When a baby younger than 1 year old dies unexpectedly, it is referred to as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It often happens while the baby is asleep, and can happen to seemingly healthy babies. Many of the health conditions listed above, such as birth defects and low birth weight, are factors that can contribute to SIDS. Therefore, women using heroin during pregnancy should understand the very real risk to their unborn child.

Looking for a heroin detox program

After reading about the many health risks associated with using heroin during pregnancy, a lot of women may assume they need to stop using heroin immediately. However, this is not advisable! It is critical to keep in mind that suddenly quitting (often called going cold turkey) can actually cause severe problems for your baby, including death.

For women who are pregnant and using heroin, experts urge that they should not abruptly discontinue use without getting treatment from their healthcare provider first. Some examples of heroin withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Irritation
  • Depression
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Itchiness
  • Excessive yawning and sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Cold sweats
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Cramp-like pains
  • Involuntary spasms in the limbs
  • Severe muscle and bone aches

Your healthcare provider or a drug addiction treatment program can treat withdrawal symptoms and other side-effects with medications like methadone or buprenorphine.

Moreover, there are a lot of important things to consider when looking for a medical detox program. Pregnant women struggling with heroin addiction should always look for comprehensive treatment options that offer medical assistance through each level of care. Additionally, every individual deserves quality care in a safe and supportive environment.

The Orchid Recovery Program at Palm Partners Recovery Center is specifically designed to offer women struggling with addiction a unique and empowering path to recovery. If your or someone you love is struggling, please call toll-free now. We want to help. 1-800-755-9588.  

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