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Illegal Drug Use and Pregnancy

The risks involved with illegal drug use during pregnancy

The effects of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, can be devastating on a fetus. Unfortunately, many women of childbearing age in the U.S. use some form of illegal drug.

A mother taking illegal drugs during pregnancy increases her risk for anemia, blood and heart infections, skin infections, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases. She also is at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Almost every drug passes from the mother's bloodstream through the placenta to the fetus. Illicit substances that cause drug dependence and addiction in the mother also cause the fetus to become addicted.

A chromatography is a laboratory test performed on a woman's urine that can detect many illegal drugs, including marijuana and cocaine. Both marijuana and cocaine, as well as other illegal drugs, can cross the placenta. Marijuana use during pregnancy may be linked to cognitive and behavioral problems in the baby. Cocaine use can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery of the fetus, premature detachment of the placenta, high blood pressure, and stillbirth. Infants born to cocaine-using mothers are more likely to have low birth weight and may have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The effects of cocaine on the baby may include, but are not limited to:

  • Growth defects

  • Hyperactivity

  • Behavioral problems

  • Learning problems

Using dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine can cause miscarriage and preterm birth. Newborns exposed to these drugs in pregnancy often have signs of withdrawal, such as jitteriness, trouble sleeping and feeding, as well as later problems with tremors and muscle tone. They may also be at higher risk for SIDS. 

Heroin and other opiates, including methadone, can cause significant withdrawal in the baby, with some symptoms lasting several weeks. Babies born to opiate-addicted mothers are at higher risk for apnea (stopping breathing) and SIDS. These babies also have feeding difficulties.

If a woman stops taking illegal drugs during her first trimester, she increases her chances of having a healthy baby.