Every substance you ingest into your body has an effect on it. This is doubly so for women who are pregnant. There are several substances that are widely known to be harmful to children in utero. Most notable among them are alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. However, certain over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs can also have harmful effects on children in the womb, sometimes even leading to permanent birth defects.
Taking medication during pregnancy is very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in a 2011 study that the vast majority of women (90%) take a least one type of medication during pregnancy and 70% take at least one prescription medication. What is particularly interesting, although not particularly surprising, is that these rates have gone up over the years.
Since 1976, the use of prescription medications during the first trimester of pregnancy has increased by more than 60%, while the number of women who take four or more medications during pregnancy has tripled. The most commonly used OTC medications by pregnant women are acetaminophen (65%), ibuprofen (18%), and pseudoephedrine (15%).
Although most medications are perfectly safe for use during pregnancy, there are several that are not. The following are some examples of drugs known to cause birth defects.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed to treat various mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They are sold under the brand names Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, Symbyax, and Fluvoxamine. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public warning stating that infants who are born to mothers taking SSRIs are at a heightened risk of developing persistent pulmonary hypertension of the infant (PPHN). This is a condition that affects the blood flow to an infant’s lungs at delivery. When a child is born, the blood pressure in the lungs should drop in order for the baby to breathe alone. However, PPHN causes the infant to revert to fetal circulation where the blood flow bypasses the lungs, which prevents the baby from breathing. Extended deprivation of oxygen can lead to death or cause long-term cognitive problems like autism and ADHD. In addition to PPHN, SSRIs can also cause limb abnormalities, cleft lip and/or palate, heart defects, spina bifida, craniosynostosis, neural tube defects, and omphalocele.
Benzodiazepines are medications that are used to treat anxiety, sleeplessness, seizures, muscle spasms, and alcohol withdrawal. They include brand names such as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, Restoril, and Ativan. Although researchers disagree as to the precise risks that benzodiazepines pose to children in utero, several studies have shown that the use of benzodiazepines during pregnancy can result in an increased risk for cleft lip and/or palate if taken during the first trimester. Taking benzodiazepines closer to the time of delivery increases these risks, as well as increasing the risks of the baby having withdrawal symptoms, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, irritability, crying, sleep disturbances, tremors, and jitteriness.
Antibiotics are very commonly prescribed to treat and prevent bacterial infections. While most antibiotics are safe for use during pregnancy, especially penicillins, two types have recently been found to cause birth defects—sulfa drugs (brand names include Thiosulfil Forte and Bactrim) and nitrofurantoins (brand names include Furadantin and Macrobid). Sulfa drugs are linked to birth defects including brain and heart problems and shortened limbs, and nitrofurantoins have been linked to heart problems and cleft palate. Each of these drugs has been shown to double or triple the risk of a baby being born with one of the particular defects that are associated with them.
Accutane is a medication used to treat acne and pregnant women who use it have a high risk of birthing children with severe birth defects. In fact, the dangers from Accutane are so acute that the FDA placed a black-box warning on it, its most severe drug advisory. The FDA advises that women are urged not to take Accutane if they are pregnant or even have a chance of becoming pregnant in the near future, and should not breastfeed their children if they took Accutane at any point prior to their pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that that Accutane has an incidence rate of 25.6% for neonatal defects, including cleft palate, heart defects, hydrocephaly, microcephaly, eye abnormalities, ear abnormalities, facial dysmorphism, intellectual disabilities, and central nervous system malformations.
Diflucan is a prescription medication that is used to treat yeast infections. Although most yeast infections can be treated with a topical ointment, more severe infections may be treated with Diflucan, which is taken orally. A recent study indicates that women who take Diflucan during pregnancy were about 50% more likely to suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth than women who did not take it. If they did not suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth, there was also an increased risk for brachycephaly (flattened rear skull) and cleft palate associated with Diflucan.
If your doctor prescribed you a certain type of medication without taking your pregnancy into account, it will likely constitute medical malpractice. Doctors should know to inquire about and consider pregnancy when making any type of medication recommendations and if they do not, your child’s life may be affected.
You have the right to hold a negligent doctor accountable for all of the losses you and your child incurred because of their error. Medical malpractice cases can be challenging, however, so you need an experienced attorney on your side who knows how to handle this type of case.
In addition, if a newer medication proves to cause birth defects, the pharmaceutical company may be held liable for the losses of anyone who was injured by the drug, including pregnant women and their children.
If you have been prescribed a medication that you believe may have caused harmful birth defects, please contact the attorneys at the Dolman Law Group for a free consultation by calling 727-451-6900.