More than half of pregnant women take some type of drug (prescription, over the counter, or illicit), use tobacco, or drink alcohol at some point before they deliver. Even the most careful mother-to-be may use something before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Heroin abuse, however, can have particularly devastating consequences.
Pregnant Women May be Reluctant to Disclose Illicit Drug Use
Illicit drugs like heroin don’t fall into the same category as prescription medications. A pregnant woman may be reluctant to tell her doctor that she has been or is continuing to use heroin. She may be concerned that the doctor may report her drug use to the police.
This concern may lead to the pregnant woman denying that she is using the illicit drug at all or telling the doctor that she is using but not being honest about the amount. In a worst-case scenario, she may avoid seeking regular prenatal care for herself and her unborn child.
The doctor needs to know the details of what a patient may be taking to provide the best possible care to the mother and baby. This is true whether she visits the doctor in an office, clinic, or the emergency room. If blood or urine samples are taken for testing and analysis, they are just to give the medical team information that is used to treat the patient. All patient information is kept confidential.
How Heroin Passes from Mother to Unborn Child
When a pregnant woman uses heroin, the drug crosses the placenta to the baby. This passing of the drug from mother to unborn child occurs because some of the unborn child’s blood vessels are found in the villi (small, hairlike projections) that extend into the wall of the uterus.
The mother’s blood passes through the spaces around the villi. A thin membrane is the only thing which separates the mother’s blood from the unborn baby’s blood in the villi. The drug in the mother’s blood crosses the membrane into the blood vessels in the villi. From there, it moves through the umbilical cord to the unborn child.
Pregnancy Complications from Heroin Abuse
Heroin abuse during pregnancy can lead to a number of unwanted consequences.
• Increased Risk of Miscarriage
Pregnant women using heroin who try to get off the drug “cold turkey” have a higher than normal risk of miscarriage. The sudden stop in use can cause uterine irritability.
This condition refers to the uterus contracting rhythmically before the due date. It is not the same as the Braxton-Hicks contractions that are a normal lead-up to going into labor. Some of these contractions can be quite painful, and they may be strong enough to trigger a miscarriage and/or lower fetal heart rate.
• Higher Risk of Premature Labor
The uterine irritability described above can also start premature labor in some instances. If the labor can’t be stopped, the baby may be born pre-term. Depending on the age of the baby at birth, he or she may have various health concerns. For example, lung issues stemming from the premature birth are quite common.
• Low Birth Weight
Babies born to women who are using opioids like heroin tend to be smaller. Some low-birthweight babies are at higher risk of getting infections, while others may be at higher risk for certain health conditions later in life, such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
• Addiction to Heroin
Some babies will be born addicted to heroin and will begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms starting a few hours or days after birth. The symptoms include:
- Difficulty gaining weight
- High-pitched crying
- Poor feeding
Seek Help for Heroin Abuse
It can be difficult to ask for help for heroin abuse. This is a treatable disease, however.
If you are struggling with addiction, be honest with your doctor about your concerns. Your physician will be much better able to provide quality care, whether it’s prenatal checkups or a referral to a drug and alcohol treatment center, if he or she knows the full story about your health.