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Women who take codeine, hydrocodone or oxycodone before or during early pregnancy face an increased risk of giving birth to a baby with congenital heart defects or other birth defects. A study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that 2 to 3 percent of mothers of babies with birth defects were treated with prescription opioid painkillers or analgesics such as hydrocodone, oxycodone or codeine just before or during early pregnancy. The most commonly used opioid analgesics reported by women in this study were hydrocodone and codeine.

Opioid Painkillers and Birth Defects

Treatment of pregnant women with opioid painkillers has been linked to several types of congenital heart defects as well as other serious birth defects such as:

  • Spina Bifida: Neural tube defect in which a part of the spinal cord is exposed
  • Hydrocephaly: Occurs when cerebrospinal fluid collects in the brain, causing swelling on the brain
  • Congenital glaucoma: Eye condition that could lead to optic nerve damage and could result in loss of vision
  • Gastroschisis: Condition in which the infant’s intestines stick out of the abdominal wall

Congenital Heart Defects

The same study also found that women who took these prescription painkillers just before or during early pregnancy had a doubled risk of delivering a baby with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a life-threatening heart defect where the left side of the heart is extremely underdeveloped.

According to the CDC, congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect. About 40,000 children who are born in the United States each year have some type of congenital heart defect. A majority of infants with congenital heart defects die in the first year of life and those who survive may end up needing several surgeries, lengthy hospitalizations and a lifetime of treatment.

The CDC lists four facts that could determine the effects of opioid painkillers on a pregnant woman and her fetus:

  • How much medication was taken
  • The part of the pregnancy during which the medication was taken or administered
  • Other health conditions the woman may have
  • Other medications the woman takes during pregnancy

The best course of action to take if you are planning to become pregnant or if you are already pregnant is to consult your doctor before taking any pain medications.

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