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Eighty per cent of women take some form of medication during pregnancy

Press release issued: 6 October 2004

A survey of mothers-to-be suggests that eight out of ten women take some form of therapeutic drugs during pregnancy.

A survey of mothers-to-be suggests that eight out of ten women take some form of therapeutic drugs during pregnancy.

The advice from the British National Formulary (British Medical Association and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain) is that all drugs should be avoided if possible during the first three months – and only prescribed at all if the benefits to the mother outweigh the risk to the foetus.

But the latest study from the Children of the 90s project, based at the University of Bristol, showed that only 17 per cent of mothers did not take any conventional medicine throughout the entire pregnancy. And many of those women took iron, folate, or other supplements or herbal and homeopathic products.

Researchers asked 14 thousand pregnant women to report all the medical products they’d taken, including prescriptions, medicines bought over the counter, herbal and homeopathic products as well as iron, vitamins and other supplements.

Dr Judith Headley says it is well established that the baby in the womb may be influenced by medicines taken by the mother – and their use is widespread in various countries.

“Fortunately relatively few drugs have been proven to cause malformations of the embryo or foetus. However little is known about more subtle effects on foetal or child development.”

A previous study from Children of the 90s has shown a possible link between high usage of paracetamol during pregnancy and wheezing in early childhood – suggesting a connection to asthma. 

The latest study found that 39 per cent of women took analgesics – mostly paracetamol but also aspirin - during the early stages of pregnancy. Iron preparations were used by 33 per cent, and 22 per cent took folic acid supplements, 23 per cent used antacids, indigestion medicines, in mid to late pregnancy.

Dr Headley says it is not surprising since many pregnant women will suffer from a variety of symptoms such as indigestion, nausea, vomiting, and haemorrhoids.

She notes: “Some conditions are treated with prescription drugs after assessment of risks and benefits with a doctor. However minor ailments are often self-medicated, with over-the-counter products.

“Some women are also turning to alternative therapies to avoid taking conventional medication and may end up taking non-standardised herbal preparations which have not undergone the rigorous testing of more conventional products.”

The advice given by the British National Formulary includes the statement: “Drugs should be prescribed in pregnancy only if the expected benefit to the mother is thought to be greater than the risk to the foetus, and all drugs should be avoided if possible in the first trimester.”

Dr Headley reports: “In this study there is little evidence of drug avoidance in the first trimester, although many of the products may have been self-administered rather than given on the advice of a doctor.

All the research appears to suggest that the reported incidence of drug use in pregnancy is higher in recent years.

“It is a long time now since the World was shocked by the effects of Thalidomide, so perhaps it is time to remind  women who may become pregnant that some drugs can be harmful and that they should seek advice from a health professional before self-medicating.”

Medication use during pregnancy: data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. J. Headley, K. Northstone, H Simmons, J. Golding and the ALSPAC Study Team, Unit of Paediatric & Perinatal Epidemiology, Institute of Child Health, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.      European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

ALSPAC, The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed the children and parents in minute detail ever since.   

In October 2002 ALSPAC reported that women who frequently use paracetamol in late pregnancy may increase the risk of wheezing in their offspring. The researchers found that children whose mothers had taken paracetamol on most days or every day during the second half of pregnancy were twice as likely to wheeze through early childhood as children whose mothers never took paracetamol.  Shaheen SO, Newson RB, Sherriff A, Henderson AJ, Heron JE, Burney PGJ, Golding J, ALSPAC Study Team. Paracetamol use in pregnancy and wheezing in early childhood. Thorax 2002; 57:958-963 .



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