Side Effects of Opioid Painkillers Linked to Birth Defects: CDC

A government study has found a link between some birth defects and the use of OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine and other powerful opioid painkillers. 

In a study published this week in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that taking opioid pain killers before pregnancy or in early pregnancy nearly doubled the risk of giving birth to a child with heart defects.

The findings were gleaned from data in the ongoing National Birth Defects Prevention Study. The CDC looked at opioid use among 17,449 case mothers and 6,701 control mothers. They found that about 2.6% of the case mothers used opioid painkillers in the first month before getting pregnant or during the first trimester. The most commonly used painkillers were codeine and Vicodin.

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Researchers found statistically significant increases in the rate of heart defects, spina bifida and gastroschisis in the infants those mothers bore. The CDC said it also appears that the drugs are linked to increased risk of hydrocephaly and congenital glaucoma.

There are about 40,000 newborns diagnosed with congenital heart defects in the U.S. every year, making it the most common type of birth defect. Many of those infants die before reaching their first birthday and those that do survive often suffer numerous surgeries, permanent disabilities and long hospital stays.

CDC officials said that despite the findings, the overall risk of birth defects from opioid painkillers is low. CDC officials said that health care providers should weigh the benefits of OxyContin, Vicodin and other opioids, as well as their potential risks, before prescribing them for pregnant women or women of reproductive age who might be planning on becoming pregnant or who might be at high risk for unintended pregnancy.

Opioids have already been connected to a number of painkiller side effects, such as nausea, constipation, dizziness and sedation. They are also frequently associated with a high risk of drug addiction and drug overdose.

OxyContin (oxycodone) is a form of the narcotic oxycodone that is designed to release the painkilling medication into the bloodstream gradually over a 12-hour period. Approved by the FDA in 1996, drug abusers quickly discovered that the pill could be crushed and snorted or inhaled for an instant high. Often referred to on the street as “Hillbilly Heroin” or “Killers,” the drug has been linked to hundreds of drug overdoses and deaths. The CDC study did not factor in abuse or misuse of opioids.

The pill is the best-selling prescription pain medication in the U.S., with more than $2 billion in annual sales.


  • FrancesJuly 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    I took lortab my whole pregnancy for back pain. It was prescribed by my doctor. At 3 months old my baby died and no one can tell me why. Could it be from the pain killer?

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