Thalidomide which was sold as an over-the-counter medicine to treat morning sickness in pregnant women resulted in a birth defect known as phocomelia — babies with phocomelia were born with shortened limbs or no limbs at all. Over 10,000 babies were born with this disorder and only about 50% survived.
That experience opened our eyes to the possible dangers of drug use in pregnancy. Since then, caution has been employed even by the most experienced doctors. And for pregnant women, the best they can do is to avoid self-medication as much as possible.
In simple terms, self-medication is performed whenever someone uses a drug that wasn’t given by a healthcare provider. This is a bad practice and should be avoided as much as possible even for the seemingly mildest of symptoms.
Some drugs that are taken during pregnancy can cross the placenta and have a negative effect on the fetus.
However, it’s not possible to go through pregnancy without taking any medicine. Even WHO recommends that elemental iron and folic acid be taken from the onset of antenatal care. Also, some pregnant women have chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma and they must receive drugs to control these ailments during pregnancy.
Pregnant women should avoid self-medication for the following reasons
If a pregnant woman experiences any symptom of illness, she should report to her healthcare provider instead of self-medicating.
1. Self-medication can lead to birth defects
There’s a chance that drugs taken by self-medication may either not be safe in pregnancy or they’d be taken at the wrong dose, and that could lead to birth defects.
For instance, two classes of anti-hypertensive medications — ACEIs (e.g. Lisinopril) and ARBs (e.g. Valsartan), can cause birth defects such as kidney damage, deformities to the face, lungs, and limbs of the fetus, especially if taken at the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy.
NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen can cause premature closure of the ductus arteriosus (leading to right heart failure), jaundice, brain damage, bleeding problems in the newborn and mother.
Chloramphenicol (an antibiotic) can cause the gray baby syndrome.
Ciprofloxacin (an antibiotic) can increase the possibility of joint damage
Streptomycin (an antibiotic) has a risk of damage to the ear that may lead to deafness (ototoxicity).
2. Self-medication can lead to miscarriage
Another danger of self-medication is that the medicines taken may be ones that could cause miscarriage (natural abortion).
Drugs that have a tendency to cause miscarriage include high doses of vitamin A, NSAIDs, misoprostol, and quinine.
3. Self-medication can lead to the birth of underweight babies
The same drugs that cross the placenta to cause birth defects or miscarriage could also lead to the birth of underweight babies. These drugs can cause the blood vessels of the placenta to narrow (constrict) and reduce the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the fetus.
Low birth weight is a major risk factor for neonatal mortality.
4. Adverse drug reactions.
Because of the chance that drugs taken by self-medication during pregnancy may not be safe, the woman could experience adverse drug reactions that can put her life and that of the fetus at risk.
5. Waste of money
For obvious reasons, a drug taken by self-medication will most likely be a wrong drug that can’t take care of the illness. She may then visit her healthcare provider, who after clerking her may recommend a safer and effective medicine that she’ll have to buy again.
Healthcare professionals should exercise caution regarding drug therapy in pregnant women. Every drug recommended to pregnant women should be safe in accordance with FDA’s classification of drug use in pregnancy. Drugs in pregnancy category X should always be avoided.