Newborns Addicted to Prescription Painkillers

Here is one of the worst side effects to the prescription drug epidemic – the impact it has on newborn babies whose pregnant mothers were addicted.

Healthcare professionals across the U.S. are seeing an epidemic of babies born addicted to prescription painkillers.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s fastest growing drug problem is prescription drug abuse.    With the increase in the number of women who abuse prescription opiate painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin has come a corresponding rise in the number of babies born addicted to these drugs.

In Florida, which has been described as the epicenter of prescription drug abuse, Attorney General Pam Bondi has asked legislators to develop prevention strategies to stem the tide of drug-exposed newborns.  In a recent USA Today article, Bondi described how the sight of babies writhing in pain during withdrawal at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa “broke her heart.”

There are currently no national statistics on how many babies go through painkiller withdrawal, but reports from many areas show that the rate of addicted newborns has doubled or tripled in the past decade.  According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, nearly 1,400 babies were born with withdrawal symptoms in the state in 2010.  This is a possible indicator of the extent of the problem that other states will experience in the future.

According to Lewis Rubin, directory of newborn services at Tampa General Hospital, babies who are exposed to several months of drug use in the womb experience withdrawal a few days after birth.  Opiate withdrawal is one of the most severe forms of drug withdrawal.  Like an adult who quits drugs cold turkey, addicted babies vomit, twitch, experience severe pain and have diarrhea.  They have trouble breathing and eating.  Doctors treat infant withdrawal with morphine, methadone and other narcotic drugs.  It can require weeks for these babies to completely withdraw from all drugs.

Many women who are pregnant mistakenly believe that prescription painkillers are not harmful to their baby.  Women who are addicted to these drugs and attempt to quit while pregnant put their baby at risk of pre-natal withdrawal and seizures; they also are at greater risk of miscarriage.

According to a recent article in USA Today, few studies have been completed on the long-term effects of in-utero exposure to prescription painkillers.  Some experts believe that the effects are similar to the effects of heroin exposure, including learning and attention deficit problems later in life.  Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack from California released a statement in reaction to the USA Today article calling on Congress to take decisive action to limit the distribution of powerful painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin.  Congresswoman Bono Mack, who serves as Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, has two bills pending to limit access to OxyContin and other oxycodone drugs and require more training for healthcare providers who prescribe them.