The maternal use of steroids and possible birth defects from steroids should be a major concern for women considering pregnancy. While steroids are medically necessary at times, the effect of steroids on the unborn child is a real worry.
Birth Defects Caused by Maternal Steroid Use
Long term steroid use can be the cause of specific birth defects. The most common birth defects from steroids are related to the abnormal levels of sex hormones in the developing fetus of pregnant women taking steroids. These birth defects include mental retardation and pseudohermanphroditism. Pseudohermanphroditism is when the infant is born with both male and female sex traits.
Infants born with both male and female sex traits may have the appearance of male genitalia but have parts of the female reproductive organs in the pelvis. The reverse can also be seen. A female infant may have the appearance of a female, but have one or more testicles up in the pelvis cavity.
How Steroids Affect a Woman's Body
Research has shown that besides decreasing inflammation and increasing muscle strength and growth, the long term use of anabolic steroids may change the reproductive system of some women. This is the direct result of a decrease in estrogen and progesterone levels in the body and changes in the level of testosterone. Female athletes who compete and use steroids for growth and strength may be most affected.
Females who use long term steroids years before considering pregnancy may have a suppressed reproductive system. Menstrual cycles may be irregular or ceased and infertility is possible. Women who have been on steroids, prescribed or not, must be honest with their physician about steroid use when considering pregnancy.
The long term use of steroids also affects other organs. Steroid use can lead to cervical and endometrial cancer. They also can damage the liver, increase levels of cholesterol, and affect the cardiovascular system leading to heart disease or a weakened immune system. When used for muscle strengthening, long term use of steroids, in fact, will weaken ligaments and tendons. This is because the ligaments and tendons cannot keep up with the muscle growth.
Medical Use of Steroids
Steroids are used for many health problems to reduce inflammation, pain, and allergic reactions. A physician will monitor the doses and frequency for acute conditions and the steroids will be gradually weaned off. Using steroids during pregnancy for a short term or an acute episode of allergy or illness does not pose a significant threat to the unborn child. In the cases of severe illness, the risk of steroid use will be balanced with the health and well being of mother and fetus.
Depending on which trimester the steroids are prescribed, the infant may have low or high glucose levels after birth and a decreased respiratory response. These effects can be medically managed at the time of delivery and for the next few days. The physician will be prepared for complications after delivery when a complete prenatal history is obtained.
Discuss Steroid Use With Your Obstetrician
Women who have been using steroids need to have a complete physical and an open discussion with an obstetrician before and during pregnancy to avoid possible birth defects from steroid use. Together, a pre and post natal plan of care can be developed resulting in a healthy infant.