Drug abuse usually refers to drugs prohibited by law, but it can also include use of legal substances, such as alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and prescription medications. "'Abuse" of these substances means not using them as they were prescribed or using them to excess.
Dependence on Drugs
Physical dependence implies the drug must be taken to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms—it does not always mean addiction or drug abuse. For example, many caffeine users develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking coffee, but they are not considered drug abusers or drug addicts.
Psychological dependence means the user has developed an emotional need for a drug or medication. This need may be more compelling than a physical need and can provide the stimulus for continued drug use.
Pregnancy Problems Are More Frequent
Nutritional deficiencies may be more common in pregnant women who abuse drugs. Anemia and fetal-growth retardation can also occur. A pregnant woman may face an increased chance of pre-eclampsia.
Marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Research has shown the use of marijuana by a mother-to-be can cause problems to the child later in life, including attention deficits, memory problems and impaired decision making. These problems appear between ages 3 and 12 years. Hashish also contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Avoid using it during pregnancy.
Researchers have shown that use of central-nervous-system stimulants, such as amphetamines, during pregnancy is associated with an increase in cardiovascular (heart) defects in babies.
Barbiturate use may be associated with birth defects, although this has not yet been proved definitely. However, we have seen withdrawal, poor feeding, seizures and other problems in babies born to mothers who abused barbiturates during pregnancy.
Tranquilizing agents include benzodiazepines (Valium® and Librium®) and other, newer agents. Several studies have related the use of these drugs to an increase in birth defects.
Opioids are derived from opium and synthetic compounds with similar actions. They produce euphoria, drowsiness or sleepiness, and decreased sensitivity to pain. Habitual use can lead to physical dependence. Opioids include morphine, Demerol®, heroin and codeine.
These drugs are associated with a variety of congenital abnormalities and complications of pregnancy. Women who use opioids during pregnancy are often at high risk for premature labor, intrauterine-growth retardation and pre-eclampsia. The baby may experience withdrawal symptoms after birth.
If the mother uses the drugs intravenously, other problems may occur, such as AIDS, hepatitis and endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart). Any of these is considered very serious during pregnancy.
The use of some hallucinogens, such as LSD, mescaline and peyote, is not as common as it was several years ago. However, use of phencyclidine (PCP), a powerful hallucinogen, is growing.
PCP, also called angel dust, can cause severe mental illness and loss of contact with reality in the mother. Research has shown it causes abnormal development in some humans, so we believe it can cause abnormal development in human babies, although it has not been definitely proved.
Cocaine and Crack
Today, cocaine use is a more common complication of pregnancy. Often a user consumes the drug over a long period of time, such as several days. During this time, the user may eat or drink very little, which in itself can have serious consequences for a developing fetus.
Cocaine use has been associated with convulsions, arrhythmia, hypertension and hyperthermia in a pregnant woman. Continual use of cocaine can affect maternal nutrition and temperature control, which can harm the fetus. Cocaine use has been linked with miscarriage, placental abruption and congenital defects. Crack is an even more potent form of cocaine; the effects and warnings regarding cocaine apply to crack as well.
Infants born to mothers who use cocaine or crack often have lower IQs and long-term mental deficiencies. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is also more common in these babies. Many babies are stillborn.
A Final Thought
You may know someone who used drugs a few times while pregnant, but gave birth to a baby who seemed healthy. You might wonder if the dangers of drug abuse in pregnancy are exaggerated. These dangers are not exaggerated! Anyone who abuses drugs but happens to have a healthy baby anyway is lucky. A fetus is totally dependent on the mother-to-be for all of its needs, so everything a woman does can affect her baby. What may seem like a small amount of a certain substance to a grown woman can have a major effect on the fetus whose organs are still being formed. Your baby's health is up to you. Do all you can to help your baby have the best possible start in life.