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How Does Heroin Abuse Affect Pregnant Women?

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Updated March 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: How Does Heroin Abuse Affect Pregnant Women?
Answer: When a pregnant woman uses heroin, the drug passes through the placenta to the fetus causing the baby to become chemically dependent along with the mother. This results in a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

Newborns with NAS require hospitalization and treatment that includes medication to relieve the symptoms. The medication, usually morphine, is tapered off until the baby becomes opioid free.

According to the National Institute on Drub Abuse, some of the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome in newborns include:

  • Excessive crying
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Slow weight gain
  • Tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Possible death

If the woman begins methadone maintenance combined with prenatal care and comprehensive drug treatment during pregnancy it can improved the outcome for both the mother and the new born compared with untreated heroin use by the mother. However, babies exposed to methadone during pregnancy usually require treatment for NAS.

Some recent NIDA research suggests that buprenorphine treatment for heroin use of the mother during the pregnancy, however, is safe for both mother and the unborn child. These children require shorter hospital stays and less treatment with morphine, compared with newborns born to mothers on methadone treatment.

Other NIDA research has shown that treating NAS babies with buprenorphine combined with naloxone, instead of morphine, reduces side effects and is equally safe for infants born to opioid addicted mothers.

Back to: Heroin FAQ

Sources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Research Report Series Updated January 2014

The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Heroin." Drug Guide. Accessed March 2014.

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