In recent years there has been an incredible rise in men and women addicted to opiates, the drug found in most painkillers. The numbers became so staggering that it was beginning to be called an epidemic sweeping the country. In states like Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Washington, and even Hawaii, there were large number of overdoses taking place, forcing public officials to take action.

According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 69, 000 people who die each year from opioid overdose. The abuse of prescription painkillers has reached epidemic proportions in America. Close to half of the nation’s 38,329 drug overdose deaths in 2010 involved painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These narcotics now kill more adults than heroin and cocaine combined. Opioids are the main activating drug found in painkillers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, diphenoxylate, morphine, codeine, and methadone. Opioids are synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. It can be injected or inhaled by snorting or sniffing or smoking it.

Sadly, when women are addicted to opiates and when they are also pregnant, they obviously put their unborn child at risk for an addiction as well. In 2012, there was such a rise in newborn babies addicted to opiates that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released its first updated guidelines on neonatal drug withdrawal since 1998.

Exposure to painkillers during pregnancy is linked to a host of problems among newborns, including drug withdrawal upon birth. Some of the problems experienced by newborns with opiate addictions include extreme irritability, poor sucking, tremors, seizures, diarrhea, vomiting and shrill crying. Long-term issues include birth defects, impaired growth, and behavioral problems.

The report provided by the AAP recommended that each hospital develop ways to screen mothers for drug abuse early in their prenatal treatment. If women are not screened during pregnancy, their newborns can be tested which often involves taking samples of the infants’ urine as well as their feces. Although this doesn’t always reveal an addiction, even if one is present, at least the newborns who are discovered as having an addiction can be treated immediately.

It’s true that some drug-exposed infants don’t exhibit any problems after birth. In this case, it’s a matter of waiting to see if any symptoms arise later in their lives. However, if infants reveal an opiate addiction, some ways to help with the discomforts of their withdrawal during the first few days and weeks of life include simply taking measures to increase their comfort. This might include minimizing light and sound, rocking them, and offering high-calorie formula to minimize their hunger. If those measures aren’t effective, babies may need to be treated with therapeutic drugs.

What’s significant to know is that unborn opiate addictions are entirely preventable. Experts suggest that pregnant women be screened during prenatal visits and for those who test positive, services such as counseling and drug treatment be provided early. Research indicates that the most effective way to reduce addictions among newborns is a combination of public health messages that target abuse of painkillers as well as early education on the dangers of using such drugs, particularly while pregnant.

A developing fetus cannot process the strength of opiates their mothers are ingesting. The presence of such a drug in the system of the mother places a developing child at significant risk and interferes with the growth process. This fact leads some experts to believe that mothers who place their unborn children at such risk are engaging in a form of child abuse. Certainly, there are psychological and emotional concerns to address in a pregnant woman who is abusing painkillers. Like any substance abuse, it is the psychological illness lying underneath that drives the cycle of addiction. Although it’s the illness that drives them to abuse drugs, the consequences of the addiction unfortunately don’t affect the mother alone. For this reason, it’s essential that doctors, nurses, and medical professionals tending to pregnant women do what they can to assist a women in finding drug treatment.

With the epidemic of the opiate addiction finally declining, perhaps America will also  see a decline in newborns addicted to opiates. Nonetheless, as long as prescription drug abuse remains, America’s newborns are at risk.

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