The dangers of self-medication during pregnancy | Living and LovingLiving and Loving

The dangers of self-medication during pregnancy

Read this before you pop that pill!


Many women take extreme care during pregnancy, denying themselves their usual pleasures and conveniences for the benefit of their unborn child. That means no smoking, alcohol or other vices.

But, denying yourself medication when you’re ill can be tough.  You can no longer just take a tablet for a headache, nausea or hay fever, because the medicines and supplements you use while pregnant could affect the health of your growing baby.

The medicines you use change the natural state of your body. And, when you consider the fact that your body is doing all kinds of incredible things to grow a baby, this can be serious.

For many substances, there’s also insufficient data to make a call on safety. This is why Dr Trudy Smith, a Johannesburg-based gynaecology oncologist and obstetrician, advises that it is best to avoid all unnecessary medication while pregnant.

Medicines to avoid during pregnancy

According to Dr Kecia Gaither of WebMD and Treasure McGuire, an Australian pharmacy lecturer, the medicines that are the riskiest during pregnancy include:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Isotretinoin, taken for acne (formerly sold as Accutane)
  • Thalidomide, for the treatment of skin issues and multiple myeloma
  • Vitamin A derivatives
  • Certain anti-cancer drugs and immune-system-modifying medicines
  • The epilepsy drug Phenytoin
  • The anticoagulant Warfarin
  • Mood stabilisers, Valproate and Lithium
  • Alcohol in chronic or high doses

Despite this, Treasure notes that in most cases, “the risk of adverse effects on unborn babies is likely to be higher from an untreated maternal disease than from the medication used to treat the condition.” So in once-off, dire situations when you must take a medicine to safeguard your own health, chances are good that you and your baby will be fine. Just take care to do so in consultation with your doctor.

Treasure adds that you should chat to your doctor before taking the medicines listed below. Although they’re not recommended during pregnancy, the illnesses that they treat may pose a higher risk to you and your baby than the drugs themselves:

  • Certain anti-depressants
  • Lithium for bipolar disorder
  • Phenytoin for seizures
  • Certain cancer-treating chemotherapies
  • Fluconazole for yeast infections
  • Albuterol for asthma

ALSO SEE: Depression and pregnancy – should you give up your meds?

Are herbal treatments safe?

Just because a treatment is “natural”, doesn’t mean it’s safe. “We have no randomised controlled trials on herbal medication in pregnancy,” cautions Dr Smith. Proceed with caution, and only with the insights of your pharmacist, GP or obstetrician.

ALSO SEE: Homeopathic remedies in pregnancy

What supplements can I take during pregnancy?

There are certain supplements that you should take while pregnant. Folic acid is one of the most important. It supports red blood cell production and neural tube development in your baby’s brain and spinal cord. In fact, Dr Smith confirms that supplementing your diet with folic acid even before you fall pregnant can make a significant difference to your baby’s health.

ALSO SEE: Dos and don’ts of supplementing during pregnancy

The easiest way to get important nutrients into your system is by taking a good prenatal multivitamin.

ALSO SEE: Prenatal vitamins – what you really need

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