Heroin Use and Pregnancy: Complications and Treatments

Heroin can be one of the most damaging drugs ingested during pregnancy. The placental barrier is designed to nourish a baby, thus allowing every substance in the body to pass through and enter the fetus. If you know someone who is using heroin while pregnant and she needs help, it’s good to be armed with knowledge of the many complications of heroin use while pregnant.

Complications of Heroin Use During Pregnancy

Heroin can cause serious health risks to the mother, including but not limited to:

  • Respiratory failure, where the mother will go through severe oxygen deprivation that can lead to permanent brain damage if it isn’t treated immediately.
  • Heart and lung infections that can lead to cardiac or respiratory arrest or severe infections that spread through the entire body.
  • HIV infections or hepatitis that can have life-long consequences.
  • A coma, which may or may not be resolved.
  • Liver or kidney failure/disease.

The risks to the unborn baby are just as serious and include:

  • Premature birth, which means the baby is born before 36 weeks of gestation. If an infant is born before 36 weeks, they will end up in the NICU in the hospital and need intensive help eating, breathing, and growing.
  • Low birth weight, leading to a poor immune system and the risk for serious infections.
  • Stillbirth.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), or the unexplained death of a baby that is less than one year of age.
  • Placental abruption, where the placenta detaches from the uterine wall, denying the baby oxygen and nutrients and leading to heavy bleeding of the mother. This can lead to the death of both the mother and the baby.

Treatment During Pregnancy

Treatment for heroin addiction can be tricky during pregnancy, as drugs and the withdrawal process can put great stress on both the mother and her unborn child. Currently, methadone is the treatment of choice for a pregnant woman because its risks to the fetus are relatively low. However, the child may be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This means the baby will go through intense drug withdrawal symptoms after birth and will require hospitalization and/or medical attention to support them.

Symptoms of NAS will start within 24 hours of birth but can take as long as 72 hours. The baby will have long bouts of crying, diarrhea, fever, irritability, sweating, trembling, and vomiting. Some babies might experience seizures, hyperactive reflexes, and slow weight gain. Depending on the severity of NAS, some infants can be soothed with quiet and dimly lit environments while being swaddled, but other cases may require anti-withdrawal drugs like methadone and morphine.

As for the mother, it’s important for them to know that while methadone treatment might produce NAS in their baby, it’s not safe to quit heroin cold turkey. That stress can be more harmful to the baby than NAS and can lead to uterine contractions that may cause miscarriage or premature birth. Instead, she should undergo a doctor administered and monitored methadone program. A single dose of methadone can stop heroin cravings for 24 to 36 hours.

If she doesn’t have transportation, some clinics will bring the methadone dosage to her house as needed and administer the drug under supervision.

If you or someone you care about is currently battling heroin addiction, it’s critical to seek treatment. For the health of the unborn baby and the long-term health of the mother, seeking treatment while pregnant is more beneficial than waiting until after the birth of the baby. Talk to a doctor or even a pregnancy crisis center to find out more about getting treatment right away.

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