Birth Defects and Heroin

Pregnant woman looking in the mirror

Birth defects and heroin are linked among women who use the drug during pregnancy. A number of other complications may also arise. Find out about the risks and dangers associated with heroin use during pregnancy.

Dangers of Heroin

Heroin, also called H-stuff, smack, horse and junk, is a highly addictive opiate drug, derived from morphine. The drug works in the brain, affecting the brain's ability to perceive pain and increasing pleasure sensations. Whether injected, snorted or smoked, the drug poses dangers to all who ingest it, including unborn babies. When pregnant women use heroin, the drug is passed from the placenta to the baby. Both new and experienced users risk overdosing on heroin because the purity of the drug is uncertain. It is often mixed with other substances, including quinine, starch, sugar, and poisons such as strychnine. An overdose can result in convulsions, coma, and death. While these risks are reason enough to avoid using the drug, pregnant women who inject heroin also expose themselves and their babies to diseases like HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne illnesses. Chronic users also experience increased risks of the following problems:

  • Infections of heart lining and valves
  • Pneumonia
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Tuberculosis

Birth Defects and Heroin

Birth defects associated with heroin may include any of the following:

  • Premature birth of baby
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Low birth weight
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain)
  • Infant death
  • Infant addiction

Infants born addicted to heroin may experience withdrawal symptoms after birth, which may lead to the following difficulties:

  • Irritability
  • Diarrhea
  • Convulsions
  • Joint Stiffness
  • Fever
  • Sleep disturbances

Resources for Addiction in Pregnancy

Many pregnant women fail to reach out for help with addiction, due to shame and embarrassment. Perhaps these women feel they will be shunned or even prosecuted for using illegal drugs while pregnant. The fact is, however, addiction is a serious condition and should not be treated lightly. Women who become pregnant while addicted to heroin should not attempt to discontinue using the drug without the advice of a doctor, as severe effects and even death may occur in both mothers and unborn babies. The following are some examples of health effects related to withdrawal of heroin:

  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle or bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Cold flashes

Rather than quitting cold turkey, the best option is to contact a medical expert as soon as you discover you are pregnant. Though treating an addiction is a complicated task, and may be an extensive process, prescription medications such as methadone may help ease the transition and reduce health risks. Other treatment options include detox programs, group therapy meetings and individual counseling sessions. Choosing the best program is based on the severity of the addiction and the individual's preferences, though maintaining a support network is the key to any successful plan.The following are examples of resources, which may be helpful for addicted pregnant women:

  • National Drug Help Hotline 1-800-662-4357
  • National Alcohol and Drug Dependence Hopeline 1-800-622-2255

Treatment Outcome

For mothers who opt for treatment with methadone during pregnancy, the outcome is better for their baby than among those born of mothers who continue to use heroin throughout pregnancy. The infant may experience withdrawal symptoms from methadone after birth; however, safe treatment is available. In addition, methadone exposed babies are generally healthier and have a higher birthweight. To soothe withdrawal symptoms, mothers may use techniques like:

  • Swaddling
  • Pacifiers
  • Gentle music
  • Cuddling

Possible Long-term Effects

While early treatment is beneficial for baby and mom, long-term effects of babies exposed to heroin may still be apparent in childhood. Some studies indicate children of heroin-addicted mothers have higher instances of learning and behavioral problems.


The connection between birth defects and heroin should encourage those who are either currently pregnant or contemplating pregnancy to abstain from drugs. Keeping yourself healthy in pregnancy is essential to the health of your baby. Receiving appropriate medical care, maintaining a healthy diet and refraining from alcohol, heroin and other drugs are among the many ways to nurture your baby before birth.

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Birth Defects and Heroin