Heroin’s Effect on Expectant Mothers & Babies

Written by Michelle Rosenker

Women who are pregnant are not only sharing their bodies with their unborn children, but they are also basing their everyday lives around what is best for the health of their pregnancy. And while there are certainly moments where expecting mothers do something that is not “to code” during their pregnancy, the vast majority of mothers do whatever they can to ensure that they produce a healthy baby — even those who struggle with serious issues like mental illness and addiction while pregnant.

The most common misconception about a pregnant woman addicted to heroin is that she doesn’t care about her baby’s wellbeing in the least. It is easy to judge an addicted pregnant woman for using while expectant, especially when another life is involved. However, the drug-addicted expectant mom doesn’t love her child any less than a drug-free expectant mom. The only difference is that she is battling a disease that is preventing her from being able to care for her baby in the most appropriate ways. For the women who are pregnant and addicted to heroin, this can be utterly painstaking and earth-shattering, especially if they do not know what to do, who to reach out to, or how to stop using. 

What is Heroin?

Heroin is by far one of the most habit-forming illicit substances in the entire world. This drug is processed from morphine, which is an opioid directly derived from the opium poppy plant. Heroin can be anywhere from two to five times more potent than morphine, meaning that it packs a much bigger punch when abused. What this also means is that it is easier to become addicted to it. 

Heroin can be used a number of different ways. When most people think of heroin abuse, they often envision someone injecting it in their arm. Someone who is abusing heroin intravenously may not just be shooting it into their arm, but also other areas of the body where they can detect a viable vein. Regular intravenous heroin use can cause collapsed veins, making it difficult and even impossible to inject this substance into the veins. 

Intravenous heroin abuse, while very common, is not the only way people are abusing heroin today. Heroin is also smoked by heating the powder substance on a foil paper with a lighter or other heat source and using a straw or similar product to inhale the smoke. The powder can also be put into rolling papers or placed in a pipe to smoke. Others find it more suitable for themselves to snort heroin just as one would with cocaine or any other powder-like drug.

No matter how heroin is consumed, the effects of the drug are the same. Using heroin produces a feeling of sedation, relaxation, and detachment. As a result, many people abuse this drug to help numb psychological and/or emotional pain. It is also highly effective at relieving physical pain, making it highly desirable to those who suffer from chronic pain problems or who have an injury. Because of heroin’s potency, however, it can take just a few short days to become dependent on it. Once physically dependent on heroin, attempting to cut down or cease all use can be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, to do on one’s own. 

heroin addicted pregnant woman

How Does Heroin Impact Your Health?

There are absolutely no positive benefits associated with using heroin. Any and all abuse of this substance will inevitably cause negative effects to one’s wellbeing. At first, heroin users might not think that they are doing any real damage to their bodies, but that could not be further from the truth. Once heroin enters the body, all bets are off. 

Immediate, short-term health effects

When under the influence of heroin, the following effects can occur:

  • Heaviness in limbs
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Severe itching
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Drowsiness
  • Slow heart rate

Several immediate internal effects occur as soon as heroin is consumed. For starters, it immediately converts to morphine and binds itself to the opioid receptors in the brain. This binding causes any and all pain to be alleviated and triggers the brain’s reward system, “tricking” the user into relying on heroin to feel rewarded. Heroin also interacts with the brain’s limbic system, which is the control center for emotions, memory, and behavior. This clouds one’s judgement, inhibitions, and sense of surroundings, which can potentially lead to further consequences (e.g. driving while under the influence, making an injury worse because they are physically numbed by heroin, and continuing to use despite the potential for overdose). 

Quite possibly the most physically dangerous aspect of heroin abuse lies in how it impacts the respiratory system. Heroin is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning that it slows the functions of the body’s systems. When heroin is consumed, the user’s respiratory rate slows. If too much heroin is used, respiratory failure can occur and leave the user severely impaired or even dead. 

From a psychological perspective, abusing heroin can serve as an emotional roller coaster. It is common for heroin users to be attracted to the effects of this drug because they are already experiencing physical or psychological distress. So, going from being upset to suddenly euphorically sedated is a huge transition in itself. However, coming down from a heroin high are where the true issues lie, as the sadness and depression kicks in once again, blurring the user’s decision-making skills and likely leading to further use. The mental and emotional ups and downs associated with heroin abuse can feel like being stuck on that never-ending roller coaster ride, leaving room for aggressive behavior, agitation, irritability, anxiety, and continued depression.

Long-term effects 

The short-term effects can be absolutely crushing for some, however, it is the long-term effects of heroin abuse and addiction that can permanently alter one’s life for the worse. 

Physically, heroin holds no value. It will not do anything to improve a person’s wellness, rather it will do the opposite. In terms of the body alone, heroin addiction can cause the following:

  • Skin infections
  • Collapsed veins
  • Pulmonary infections
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart infections
  • Chronic constipation
  • Liver disease 
  • Blood-borne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis (primarily for intravenous drug users, but also applicable for heroin users who engage in risky sexual behaviors)
  • Depletion of white matter in the brain (responsible for helping “relay” information and signals to the appropriate parts of the brain)

Unfortunately, the long-term effects associated with heroin are not just physical, rather psychological, too. It is common for heroin users to not only experience worsened symptoms associated with pre-existing mental conditions, but also the following:

  • Severe depression
  • Problems sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Intense cravings
  • Fatigue

These are just some of the effects that a person abusing heroin can experience. When an additional layer of complexity is added to a heroin addiction, effects can increase and become exacerbated. This is what women who are pregnant while abusing heroin often experience. 

effects of heroin on unborn babies

What Effects Can Heroin Have in a Pregnancy?

It is clear that the impacts that heroin abuse and addiction can have on the average person can be crippling and even deadly. But when another life is involved, the stakes get much higher. 

Pregnant women, in general, need to remain vigilant in regard to their physical and psychological health when expecting. There are several things that can cause harm to a baby in utero, ranging from something as small as dehydration caused by the throw up bug to as major as a fall down the stairs. There is no doubt that pregnancy is a time for increased precautions. 

Unfortunately, women who are struggling with a heroin addiction are faced with a whole new batch of concerns that can cost both them and their babies their lives. Again, as previously mentioned, the stigma surrounding pregnant women who abuse heroin is just that — a stigma. Women addicted to heroin while pregnant typically do not care about their children any less than any other woman, but do struggle with the disease of addiction. 

Even though heroin addiction can be understood for the disease that it is, that does not mean that expecting moms who abuse this drug do not suffer serious repercussions because of their use. Heroin, when consumed, passes through the placenta and directly impacts the unborn fetus. As a result, several negative effects can occur, including the following:

Placental abruption

This occurs when the placenta separates from the uterine wall, causing a blockage of oxygen and nutrients to the baby. If a placental abruption occurs and is not treated quickly, both the mother and the baby can lose their lives. It usually results in heavy bleeding for the mother, but can also cause:

  • Vital organ failure due to blood loss
  • Blood clotting problems
  • Shock
  • Need for a blood transfusion

Miscarriage

Miscarriages typically occur in the early stages of pregnancy, however, when the expecting mother is abusing heroin, the risk remains until birth. It is common for women who become pregnant while abusing heroin to not realize that they are pregnant until it is unable to be ignored, leaving room for early-term damage to the fetus and increased risk for miscarriage. 

Premature birth

Because the body is not a viable, healthy environment for the baby to grow, women abusing heroin can go into preterm labor, resulting in premature birth. There are countless risks a premature baby can encounter, many of which can leave them permanently impacted for the remainder of their lives.

Stillborn

A stillborn birth occurs when a mother delivers her child but the child has already passed away. There are a number of factors that contribute to a stillborn birth, however, one of the most common factors for mothers abusing heroin is related to obstetrical care — or lack thereof. The regular course of care for a pregnant woman includes many checkups at the OB/GYN to ensure the health of the baby. If a woman abusing heroin is too caught up in her heroin abuse to go to these important appointments, she may not know that something is wrong until she delivers the child and sees that it is a stillborn.

These risks are extremely serious and can cause severe lasting impacts as well as death. Sadly, however, even when a woman addicted to heroin does not experience any of these complications, there is a strong possibility that her baby will be negatively impacted by its exposure to heroin while in utero. Some of the effects a baby can endure as a result of being born to a mother addicted to heroin can include the following:

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

NAS is a group of conditions that occur when a baby withdraws from an addictive substance like heroin. The amount of symptoms the baby experiences and the severity of them depends on the type of drug that was abused, how much was being consumed, and how often the use was occurring, among other specific factors. Common symptoms include:

  • Shakes and tremors
  • Excessive, high-pitched crying
  • Tachypnea (rapid respiratory rate)
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea 
  • Stuffy nose/sneezing

Low birthweight

A baby is considered to have low birth weight if he or she is born under 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Low birthweight can cause any of the following:

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS)

A condition where the baby’s lungs do not have a protein called surfactant, which helps keep air sacs in the lungs inflated

Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH)

A brain bleed that usually goes away on its own, but has the potential to cause brain damage and require surgically placing a tube to drain excess fluid

Necrotizing enterocolitis

A problem with the baby’s intestines that can lead to infections, poor feeding, and other complications

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)

An eye disease where a baby’s retinas do not develop fully that, while can cause vision loss, can be treated

Increased risk for SIDS

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, occurs when a baby passes away for no reason, usually in his or her sleep while in a crib, bassinet, etc.

Cognitive difficulties

Problems with memory recall, spacial recognition, and hyperactivity, as well as difficulties in school that include repeating grades, requiring special education classes, and having a low IQ 

Increased risk for substance abuse

Exposure to heroin while in utero increases a baby’s risk for abusing the same or other drugs in the future

Congenital defects

Defects that can impact the heart, spine, and eyes, as well as cause problems feeding, and sleeping

As mentioned before, the kinds of effects that a mom and/or baby can face relies on many various factors specific to their own personal circumstances.

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Can You Get Treated for Heroin Addiction While Pregnant?

If you are expecting and are addicted to heroin, there is help available for you. Just because you are pregnant does not mean that you cannot utilize many of the countless services provided to addicts and alcoholics worldwide. 

The first thing to consider prior to obtaining treatment is your unique needs as a woman about to enter into recovery while pregnant. Consider the following:

  • Receiving access to obstetrical care for the remainder of your pregnancy even if in rehab
  • Having the proper supervision for both yourself and your baby if requiring detox services
  • Planning out a program based on when you are expecting
  • Being connected to resources for new moms in recovery 

If you are in a place where you are able to make the appropriate decisions to support you and your unborn baby’s wellbeing, then do so as fastidiously as possible. If unable to do this, reach out to a loved one or even the admissions professionals at a treatment center to help get the process started. 

Detox

Most heroin addicts require time in detox before starting the therapeutic portion of their care, and chances are you may need these services, too. The goal of detox is to clear your body and mind of heroin and other addictive substances. Heroin detox is notorious for being intense, as it is usually comprised of some or all of the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Muscle aches and pains 
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Problems sleeping

Thankfully, you do not need to detox on your own. Enrolling in an addiction treatment program can provide you with the support you need to safely get through this part of your recovery. Not only will you receive support from a team of experienced professionals, but you may also be able to benefit from the inclusion of methadone or buprenorphine into your care. When one of these medications is combined with a therapeutic program, it is known as medication-assisted treatment. 

What is medication-assisted treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment, in general, is highly effective in helping break the insurmountable dependency a person has to opioids like heroin. Buprenorphine and methadone are opioid agonists, meaning they bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, allowing for a decrease in cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Both of these medications are opioids, however, are nowhere near as potent as heroin or other illicit opioids. Therefore, if you take one of these medications, you will not get high, nor will you develop a dependence if you take it as prescribed.

By going the route of medication-assisted treatment, you will still be exposing your baby to opioids. That means that the baby can still be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and struggle with withdrawal. However, studies show that women who take buprenorphine over methadone birth babies with fewer NAS symptoms. If you and your treatment providers determine that medication-assisted treatment is the best course of care for you, then you and your baby will be monitored closely to ensure the best possible outcome for both of you.

Therapy

Therapy will serve as the core of your recovery, as it is during this time that you peel back the layers of the onion and begin understanding more about yourself and your heroin addiction. The professionals at the treatment center you are attending will help determine which evidence-based treatment programs may benefit you the most. Some of the most common therapies made available to individuals in recovery (including pregnant women) include the following:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Experiential therapy 
  • Trauma treatment (including exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which is better known as EMDR)

Focusing on your recovery is the most important thing you will do for yourself as well as your baby. There is no straight line towards recovery, however with the implementation of a solid, evidence-based medical and therapeutic program, you can get as healthy as possible as quickly as possible. Both you and your unborn child deserve that. 

Do You Need Help Getting Sober? Call JourneyPure At The River Right Now.

At JourneyPure At The River, we have specialized programming designed to meet the needs of pregnant women struggling with addiction. Not only do we understand the challenges you are facing, but we can provide the kind of treatment that will change your life for the better. 

We understand that you are experiencing a unique situation when you come to us for help and are pregnant at the same time. That is why we work closely with your healthcare providers (such as your obstetrician) to ensure your health and the health of your baby is as best as it can possibly be. 

It is OK to be scared. Women from all over the world get scared when expecting a child, never mind if they are also dealing with a deadly disease. At JourneyPure At The River, we can help you shed many of those fears so that you can prepare for your next step in life as a recovering mother. 

Do not allow one more second to pass you by. If you are addicted to heroin, are pregnant, and need help, call us today. We can help you accomplish your goal of being happy, healthy, and involved in your baby’s life. 

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