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Effects of Opiate Abuse on a Developing Fetus

author image Catherine Schaffer
Catherine Schaffer has been writing since 1990. Her articles have appeared in many medical journals and textbooks. Schaffer holds a Bachelor of Science from Baylor College of Medicine and a physician assistant certificate. She has written health and nutrition articles for various websites and teaches movement and nutrition to help women overcome chronic diseases and obesity.
Effects of Opiate Abuse on a Developing Fetus
Woman holding an ultrasound on her belly Photo Credit: Viktor Neimanis/Hemera/Getty Images

Opiates are strong drugs derived from the poppy plant. Opiates include heroin, morphine, codeine and opium. Some opiates, such as morphine and codeine, are used to relieve pain, and others are drugs of abuse. When a pregnant woman abuses opiates, the effects can be devastating to the developing fetus.

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Low Birth Weight

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, pregnant women ages 15 to 17 have the highest use of drugs during pregnancy. Young women this age frequently have body image issues and do not eat nutritiously. This issue, combined with the use of opiates, can cause the unborn fetus to fail to thrive. This means that the baby does not gain the appropriate weight necessary to maintain the significant rate of development that is supposed to occur in the womb. Low birth weight is a significant risk factor for developmental delays after birth. According to an abstract of an article published in the April 2000 Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the interuterine growth environment plays a significant factor in the development of the child after birth. Failure to obtain the appropriate growth in-utero can lead to stillbirth and problems that extend well beyond the newborn period.


Newborns born to mothers who used opiates throughout their pregnancy are born addicted to the drugs. The newborn will suffer withdrawal symptoms such as wakefulness, irritability, tremors, high-pitched scream and diarrhea. An infant who is withdrawing from opiates can stop breathing temporarily, fail to gain weight and be unable to nurse appropriately at the breast. These infants need close monitoring and special care while they withdraw.

HIV/Hepatitis C & B

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women who use heroin are at high risk of contracting HIV, which causes AIDS, hepatitis C and hepatitis B. Sharing of needles, reuse of syringes and other paraphernalia are known to spread these diseases. Pregnant women abusing drugs have impaired judgment and often have high-risk sexual behaviors that put them at risk for contracting infectious diseases. These diseases can be transmitted to the unborn baby via the placenta. The rate of HIV transmission is approximately 25 percent when a woman is not using anti-retroviral medication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reports that non-HIV infected women transmit the Hepatitis C virus in 5 to 6 percent of pregnancies. The rate is higher in women who are co-infected with HIV, at 18.7 percent.

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