Mamas on Bedrest: Decongestants and Birth Defects

January 31st, 2014

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Hello Mamas!  With cold and flu season upon us, I wanted to take a moment and go over important information about taking medications for symptoms.

Being sick while you are pregnant is a bear because you are very limited in what you can take. So many medications are not good for your baby’s development that most healthcare providers advise mamas not to take anything. A recent article in the American Journal of Epidemiology noted that the use some nasal and oral decongestants during the first trimester can cause birth defects. In this study, Dr. Wai-Ping Yau at the Sloan Epidemiology Center in Boston looked at data from a birth defects study conducted from January 1993-January 2010. Studying 12,734 infants with birth defects and 7606 control infants (infants without birth defects) the researchers looked at those who had birth defects and then contacted the mothers regarding the use of medications during pregnancy.

Pseudophedrine has long been used by mamas during pregnancy and has been touted as being safe. However, there has been some question of suspected limb shortening when used in the first trimester. These researchers wanted to know if pseudophedrine and other decongestants did in fact cause any sort of birth defects and if so, what types. Dr. Yau and his colleagues found that phenylephrine use was associated with endocardial (heart) cushion defect (4 exposed cases), phenylpropanolamine was associated with ear defects ( 4 exposed cases), and phenylpropanolamine was associated with pyloric stenosis (narrowing and hardening of the passage from the stomach to the small intestine) (6 exposed cases). They also found elevated risks of 2 malformations with the use of intranasal decongestants (nasal sprays): pyloric stenosis and tracheo-esophageal fistula. In addition, renal collecting system anomalies potentially could be associated with second-trimester exposure to oxymetazoline.

The authors reiterated the fact that the numbers of infants affected were very small, for each products used birth defects occurred in less than 10/1000 births. Yet they suggested that further studies be done to make a definitive cause/effect statement for the medications. They also made specific note that most of the associations were the result of mamas using medications during the first trimester, so they suggested that health care providers reiterate to their patients the importance of not using any medications during that critical developmental time.

What is a mama to do if she becomes ill while pregnant? Well, after looking at this study, if she is in the first trimester, it looks as if she is going to have to tough it out. Since such a large amount of fetal development occurs in the first 12-16 weeks, refraining from the use of any medication during that time-except in cases of absolute necessity-appears to be the best course of action. How would mama know if treating her illness is an absolute necessity? She must consult with her health care provider.

Sometimes when mama is ill, the risk treating her illness is outweighed by the potential harm to her baby if she does not receive treatment. Case in point, when I was pregnant with my son, my asthma flared. I hadn’t had an asthma attack in year! But the change in my immune system with the pregnancy triggered something and there I was wheezing. I called my OB and was told to use my rescue inhaler and immediately scheduled to see a pulmonologist the next day. The pulmonologist started me on daily inhaled corticosteroids for the remainder of my pregnancy (about 4 months). His rationale was that if I was not getting enough oxygen neither was my baby. It was more important to keep my airways clear by eliminating inflammation and sensitivity with the inhaled steroid than for me to have low oxygen levels and potentially subject my baby to the same.

If you have questions about what medications (or even herbal/”natural” medicinal preparations) are safe to take if you are sick, please call and talk to your health care provider before you take anything. As Dr. Yau and his colleagues noted in the aforementioned study,

“It is not known whether any of the oral decongestants (pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, and phenylpropanolamine) cross the placenta to exert any direct effect on the fetus.”

With that being the case, Mamas, if you become ill and feel that you need to take something for your symptoms (including home remedies!!), Please consult with your health care provider first!

 

References:

Wai-Ping Yau, Allen A. Mitchell, Kueiyu Joshua Lin, Martha M. Werler, Sonia Hernández-Díaz. Use of Decongestants During Pregnancy and the Risk of Birth Defects American Journal of Epidemiology. 2013;178(2):198-208.

MedScape OB/GYN Women’s Health

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