A recent study suggests that exposure to opioid pain medications during pregnancy may elevate the risk of severe infections and other health issues in children, both before and after birth.
The research, conducted by the University of Western Australia and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, indicates that infants exposed to opioids in utero are more prone to immune-related health problems. These issues include infections, asthma, eczema, allergic reactions, both at birth and before the age of five.
Previous studies have established a connection between opioid use during pregnancy—such as codeine, fentanyl, and oxycodone—and serious, potentially life-threatening health conditions or birth defects in newborns. Infants exposed to these potent painkillers before birth are also more likely to face a higher risk of mortality before reaching one year old.
While exposure to opioids and subsequent withdrawal has been shown to suppress the immune system in adults, limited data exists on how prenatal opioid exposure affects the immune system of unborn babies and whether it leads to immune-related diseases in childhood.
The researchers analyzed data from 401,462 babies born in Western Australia between January 1, 2003, and December 31, 2018. Of these, 1,656 were exposed to two or more opioid medications before birth. The study followed up with participants yearly for nearly five years to assess the impact of prenatal opioid exposure on their health.
The findings revealed that prenatal opioid exposure was associated with increased risks of various infections, including respiratory, neurologic, eye, digestive tract, skin, soft tissue, and viral infections, as well as eczema and dermatitis, compared to those not exposed. Infants exposed to opioids before birth also experienced neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a severe condition where infants born to mothers with drug addiction undergo withdrawal symptoms, leading to an increased risk of infections and skin conditions.
The data further indicated that those exposed to opioids before birth faced a higher risk of developing severe asthma requiring hospitalization before the age of five, compared to those who were not exposed. Infants exposed to opioids prescribed for opioid use disorder had a higher likelihood of developing childhood eczema or dermatitis, while those exposed to opioids prescribed for pain had an increased risk of yeast, urinary tract, conjunctivitis, and sepsis infections.
Past research has established that infants exposed to opioids before birth are at risk of being born with debilitating birth defects and other serious health conditions. A recent study linked a new syndrome to prenatal fentanyl exposure, causing exposed babies to be born with cleft palates, clubbed feet, and other birth defects similar to those seen in Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, a developmental disorder causing learning disabilities and physical birth defects.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome, resulting from opioid exposure before birth, has led to legal actions against drug manufacturers and distributors due to the severe side effects experienced by infants exposed to these medications during pregnancy.