Opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin, OxyContin increase risk of birth defects, CDC warns

Los Angeles Times

Consuming opioid pain relievers such as codeine, oxycodone or hydrocodone just before pregnancy or early in pregnancy increases the risk of certain birth defects, especially congenital heart defects, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday.

The warning extends to such prescription painkillers as Vicodin, OxyContin and Tylenol-3, as well as a variety of generic versions of the drugs. Although there is an increased risk of some major types of birth defects from exposure to the drugs, “the absolute risk for any individual woman is relatively modest,” said epidemiologist Cheryl S. Broussard of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, who led a study of the drugs that will be published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The findings come from the ongoing CDC-sponsored National Birth Defects Prevention Study, the largest study of birth defects ever performed in the United States, covering pregnant women in 10 states, including California. The study examined only prescribed use of the drugs, not illicit use.

Congenital heart defects are one of the most common types of birth defects, affecting nearly 40,000 infants in the U.S. each year. Many infants with the conditions die in the first year of life, and those who survive often require numerous surgeries, lengthy hospitalizations and a lifetime of treatment of related disabilities.


Broussard and her colleagues found that exposure to the opioid painkillers doubled the risk of having an infant with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, one of the most critical heart defects, as well as several other types of heart problems. It also increased the risk of spina bifida, hydrocephaly (water on the brain), congenital glaucoma and gastroschisis (a herniation of the intestines through the abdominal wall).

More information about the study is available here.