CDC Warns Against Opioid Use in Women of Childbearing Age

Opioids are powerful pain medicines such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine, and their reputation for overdose and addiction are well known, but the CDC is now warning women who are pregnant or of childbearing age against using opioids for pain control because of the potential risks to unborn children.

New research published in the CDC monthly on Mortality and Morbidity suggests that opioid exposure by women in early pregnancy when organs are forming in the fetus increases the risk for birth defects in the brain, heart and spinal cord such a congenital heart and neural tubes defects, and other negative pregnancy results such as addiction and withdrawal in a newborn baby. Exposure is more likely in these critical early stages of pregnancy because a pregnancy is unknown or unplanned.

The four-year study from 2008 to 2012 studied the rate of opioid prescriptions given for pain relief to women aged 15 to 44 years. The study found on average that 27.7% of women insured through private insurance and 39.4% of Medicaid recipients filled an opioid prescription each year. Caucasian women were 1.5 times more likely than African-American or Hispanic women to fill an opioid prescription, and women in the South filled at a higher rate than their counterparts in the Northeast.

The CDC recommends that physicians do a more thorough history when prescribing pain medications to women of childbearing age and explore other pain-relieving options. It is also critical that healthcare workers educate women of this age group about the increased risks to an unknown or unborn fetus when using opioids.

“Many women of reproductive age are taking these medicines and may not know they are pregnant, and therefore may be unknowingly exposing their unborn child. That’s why it’s critical for health care professionals to take a thorough health assessment before prescribing these medicines to women of reproductive age,” explained CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.