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Because codeine has a long history of safe use, many women have used it during pregnancy without realizing that there is growing scientific evidence linking codeine to severe birth defects. A recent study found an increased risk of birth defects to the heart, brain, neural tube, abdominal wall, and more.

Codeine Overview

Codeine is an opioid narcotic analgesic, usually prescribed for the treatment of mild or moderate pain. Codeine reduces pain by changing the way the central nervous system senses pain. It also belongs to a class of medications called “antitussives,” which alleviates coughing by decreasing brain activity in the region responsible for coughing.

Most medications that contain codeine combine it with another medication. Several Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen (Tylenol), have drug synergy with codeine. Synergy means that the combined medications are stronger than either medication alone.

The list of medications that contain opioid painkillers is very long. Some of the most popular opioid medications include:

  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Tylenol-3, 4, Tylenol Plus Codeine
  • Demerol
  • Percocet
  • Some cough medicines

Codeine and Pregnancy

The leading cause of infant mortality in the United States is birth defects, particularly heart defects. Of the estimated 4 million babies born every year in the U.S., 3% have some type of birth defect, and 1% have a heart defect. Though the majority of these birth defects are not life-threatening, some are. Birth defects are more likely when pregnant women take certain types of medications, because many drugs can pass through the placenta into a developing baby’s body. Codeine and other opioid painkillers pose the greatest risk to a baby just before pregnancy, or during the first 30 weeks of pregnancy.

Currently, the FDA classifies codeine as a Pregnancy Category C medication. What does this mean? In animal studies, codeine can cause adverse effects on a developing fetus. However, in human studies, information is still inconclusive.

With codeine and other opioid painkillers, drug researchers have not thoroughly examined a possible link between codeine and birth defects. Even so, some early studies have found a link between codeine and cleft lip, cleft palate, and heart defects.

Codeine Birth Defects

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) decided to fund a large study to look into the possible link between opioid painkillers and birth defects, because previous studies have been inconclusive. The study was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, called “Maternal treatment with opioid analgesics and risk for birth defects.”

Researchers analyzed data from 17,449 women who had participated in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study — 2.9% had used an opioid painkiller during pregnancy. They compared this data to roughly 7,000 women whose babies had no defects — 2% had used an opioid painkiller during pregnancy. The researchers then looked for associations between opioid painkillers and specific types of birth defects. They found a wide range of birth defects were associated, including birth defects of the heart, brain, neural tube, abdominal wall, and eye. Certain heart defects were 1.4-times more likely.

Codeine Birth Defects

If you took codeine or other opioid painkiller during pregnancy and your baby had any birth defect, give us a call. We may be able to help you file a lawsuit, seeking justice or compensation for your baby’s injury. The following list of birth defects have been associated with maternal use of codeine during pregnancy:

  • Spina bifida (neural tube birth defect)
  • Hydrocephaly (excess fluid in the brain)
  • Glaucoma (eye defect)
  • Gastroschisis (abdominal wall defect; internal organs protrude outside the body)
  • Heart defects
  • Ventricular septal defect (hole in the wall between the lower-left and lower-right heart chamber)
  • Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (severe under-development of the left side of the heart). The risk of this birth defect was doubled.
  • Atrial septal defect (hole in the wall between the upper-left and upper-right heart chamber)
  • Tetralogy of Fallot (four severe heart defects that cause low oxygen in the bloodstream, major circulation problems)
  • Pulmonary valve stenosis (severe narrowing of the pulmonary heart valve)

Other scientific studies have also found links between codeine and cleft lip and cleft palate. Because more research needs to be conducted, it is possible that researchers will find a link between codeine and other birth defects in the future. We encourage you to give us a call if your baby’s birth defect was caused by codeine.

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