About a third of women of childbearing age in the U.S. are taking opioid painkillers, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that warns of the dangers of opioid use during pregnancy.
CDC researchers say 39% of women aged 15-44 years of age who were enrolled in Medicaid filled a prescription for an opioid pain medication each year from 2008-2012. That compares to 28% of women with private health insurance. The report, published in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), does not address how many of the women actually became pregnant.
“Taking opioid medications early in pregnancy can cause birth defects and serious problems for the infant and the mother,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD. “Many women of reproductive age are taking these medicines and may not know they are pregnant and therefore may be unknowingly exposing their unborn child.”
Opioid prescription rates were highest among women of child-bearing age in the South and lowest in the Northeast. White women were nearly one and a half times more likely to be on opioids than African-American or Hispanic women.
A study published last year in the journal Anesthesiology found that one out of every seven pregnant women in the U.S. were prescribed opioids at some time in their pregnancy – a rate significantly higher than women in Europe. Nearly 6% of the pregnant American women were prescribed opioids in the first and second trimester. In the third trimester, 6.5% took painkillers.
Federal health officials say opioid use during pregnancy might increase the risk of birth defects and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which can cause a newborn infant to experience symptoms of withdrawal from medications taken by a mother during pregnancy.
“Women, who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, should discuss with their health care professional the risks and benefits for any medication they are taking or considering.” said Coleen Boyle, PhD, Director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “This new information underscores the importance of responsible prescribing, especially of opioids, for women of child bearing age.”
Previous studies have had contradictory findings regarding the risk of opioids to babies. An early U.S. study (1959-1965), and later studies from Sweden and Norway, did not find an association between opioid prescriptions and birth defects.
However, a U.S. National Birth Defects Prevention Study (1997-2005) found associations between codeine and other opioids with birth defects, including heart defects, spina bifida and gastroschisis in newborns.