Effects Of Heroin Use During Pregnancy

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Heroin is an addictive substance that can be dangerous to use during pregnancy, both for the mother and for the developing fetus. There are several treatment options for heroin addiction while pregnant.

Heroin And Pregnancy

Heroin is an illicit opioid drug, similar to drugs such as morphine and fentanyl. Opioids pose various health risks during pregnancy, both for the pregnant person and the developing fetus.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who take opioids such as heroin should talk to a healthcare provider immediately if they’re pregnant.

The physical effects of heroin abuse can be dangerous, but with evidence-based treatment long-term recovery is possible.

What Are The Effects Of Heroin On Pregnant Women?

Heroin is an opioid that slows down, or depresses, activity in the central nervous system (CNS).

Much like prescription opioid pain relievers, regular use of heroin can cause drug dependence and addiction, among other health risks when misused chronically.

Heroin use during pregnancy, as well as the abrupt cessation of heroin (i.e. stopping “cold turkey”), carries a high risk for various short-term and long-term issues.

Short-Term Effects Of Heroin During Pregnancy

Heroin can have several short-term side effects when snorted, injected, or smoked. It’s known for its ability to produce euphoria, also known as a “rush” or “high.”

It can also affect cognition, including your decision-making skills and mental health, and have other physical side effects, such as slowed breathing, drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting.

Dependence And Addiction

Heroin is highly addictive when misused over time. Regular use can also cause drug dependence, which can make it very hard to quit heroin without professional help.

A detox program for pregnant people with addiction can help relieve heroin cravings, treat heroin withdrawal, and prevent potentially life-threatening complications for the fetus.

Bloodborne Disease

Heroin use during pregnancy, particularly via intravenous injection, carries a risk of contracting bloodborne diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

This can have significant implications for both the short and long-term health of the pregnant woman. Someone who is HIV-positive can also transmit the virus to the baby during pregnancy.

Risk Of Maternal Mortality

Pregnant people with opioid use disorder (OUD) and other substance use issues are at a higher risk for maternal mortality, according to the CDC, in large part due to overdose risk.

According to research, pregnancy-associated mortality resulting from drug overdose more than doubled in the United States from 2007 to 2016.

Risk factors for heroin overdose in pregnant people can include domestic issues, lack of social support, inadequate healthcare, co-occurring mental illness, and other major stressors.

Risks Of Heroin Use On The Developing Fetus

Heroin is a drug that can cross the placenta to the baby developing in a pregnant person’s womb.

As a result, heroin use during pregnancy can pose various health risks to an unborn baby, and risk health problems in newborns.


Heroin use during pregnancy is associated with fetal distress and miscarriage, defined by clinicians as the spontaneous loss of pregnancy before the 20th week.


Stillbirth, or the loss of a baby before or during delivery, is also a risk associated with heroin use during pregnancy. This is generally defined as the loss of a baby after the 20th-week mark.

Low Birthweight

Babies that are born to mothers who use heroin during pregnancy are at a greater risk for issues such as low birth weight, defined as weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces.

According to Stanford Medicine, low birth weight can come with various complications that include trouble feeding, trouble staying warm, and nervous system problems in newborns.

Fetal Convulsions

Various forms of fetal distress, including fetal convulsions or seizures, have been reported in cases of pregnant women who use heroin while pregnant.

According to the CDC, other possible risks of heroin addiction include congenital heart defects, neural tube defects, and preterm birth.

Birth Defects

Heroin use during pregnancy does come with a risk of some specific birth defects. That is, health conditions that are present at the time of birth.

Specific birth defects associated with opioid use during pregnancy include:

  • gastroschisis (where a baby’s intestines stick outside of the body through the baby’s belly button)
  • heart defects
  • oral clefts
  • clubfoot

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in babies between a month and a year old, is more common in babies born to mothers who use heroin during pregnancy.

This is also true for people with cocaine addiction, prescription or illicit opioid use disorder, and pregnant women battling methamphetamine substance use.

Can A Baby Be Born Addicted To Heroin?

A baby who is born to a mother who is physically dependent on heroin, and who uses heroin throughout their pregnancy, can be born with heroin dependence.

This can cause a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), or neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS).

This can cause a baby born with heroin dependence to experience symptoms of heroin withdrawal, as well as other complications, following birth.

What Are The Signs Of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

NAS can develop in some babies who are exposed to heroin and other opioids in utero, or while the baby is inside the womb.

Withdrawal symptoms typically develop within 72 hours.

Symptoms of NAS may include:

  • irritability
  • excessive crying
  • high-pitched crying
  • seizures
  • tremors
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • hyperactive reflexes
  • trouble sleeping
  • increased sweating
  • dehydration
  • poor feeding and sucking

According to the CDC, this condition generally develops as a result of long-term exposure to opiates, including prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl.

This condition can have both short-term and long-term effects.

What Is The Treatment For Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

A doctor or addiction treatment team may recommend either pharmacological (medicine) or non-pharmacological treatments for neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome from heroin use.

Non-pharmacological recommendations include:

  • breastfeeding
  • swaddling
  • skin-to-skin time
  • rooming in with mothers after birth
  • minimizing environmental stimuli

Should You Quit Heroin Cold-Turkey If You Become Pregnant?

No, this is generally not recommended for anybody, particularly pregnant women.

Quitting heroin cold turkey while pregnant can result in preterm labor, premature birth, fetal distress, and the loss of pregnancy, as well as other health risks to the mother.

What Is The Treatment For Heroin Addiction For People Who Are Pregnant?

A comprehensive substance abuse treatment program, including prenatal care, medical care, and behavioral healthcare for addiction, is recommended for pregnant people with opioid addiction.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) For Opioid Use Disorder

The safest way to get off of heroin during pregnancy is to transition a pregnant person with opioid dependence to methadone or buprenorphine, both of which are opioid-based medications.

This can help reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy. According to the CDC, medication for opioid use disorder is generally encouraged over supervised withdrawal.

Buprenorphine and methadone maintenance don’t come without their risks, but compared to supervised withdrawal, they’re associated with better outcomes and reduced relapse risk.

Inpatient Or Outpatient Drug Treatment Centers

Treatment for heroin addiction is the best way to prevent heroin use after a baby’s birth, and other complications associated with heroin dependence and drug addiction postpartum.

During a rehab program, pregnant people may undergo counseling, group therapy, and MAT, in addition to prenatal care.

Aftercare Services

After completing a residential treatment program, pregnant or parenting women may benefit from aftercare services to help manage potential triggers or cravings for heroin.

Aftercare may include outpatient support groups, relapse prevention tips, and many other evidence-based or holistic therapies for people recovering from drug use.

Find Substance Use Disorder Treatment For Pregnant Women Today

Heroin addiction during pregnancy can have serious short-term and long-term effects. With treatment, there is hope for a better, healthier future for people facing substance abuse.

Call our helpline to discover the best treatment options for yourself or a loved one today.


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