Medication use increasing among pregnant women

May 27, 2011

Medication use among pregnant women is widespread and increasing, according to a recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health in Boston.

Medication use among pregnant women is widespread and increasing, according to a recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health in Boston. The study, which was done in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Harvard School of Public Health, also found that medication use varied by socioeconomic status, maternal age, race/ethnicity, and state of residence.

Following are some of the study’s key findings:

1. During the first trimester of pregnancy:

  • 70% to 80% of women reported taking at least 1 medication; and

  • By 2008, about 50% of women reported taking at least 1 prescription medication.

2.  Over the last 30 years:

  • First trimester use of prescription medications increased by more than 60%.

  • Use of 4 or more medications during the first trimester tripled; and

  • Antidepressant use during the first trimester increased dramatically.

3.  Influence of socioeconomic factors:

  • Medication use increased with a woman’s age and education level; and

  • Use was higher among non-Hispanic white woman compared with women of other races or ethnicities that were studied; and

  • Use during pregnancy varied by state of residence

Findings for the study were obtained from interviews with more than 30,000 women participating in the Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center’s Birth Defects Study (1976 to 2008), and the CDC’s National Birth Defects Prevention Study (1997 to 2003). Results included information regarding both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drug use.

“Not only is it critical to identify how many OTC and prescription medications are taken by pregnant women and what those specific medications are, but it is also important to know how the use of medications changes over time,” said Allen A. Mitchell, MD, director of Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center and a professor of epidemiology.

The researchers note that a number of antenatal medication exposures are known causes of birth defects. However, there is insufficient information about the risks and safety for the vast majority of OTC and prescription medications.  This could lead pregnant women to unknowingly take medications that pose a risk to their fetuses.  Conversely, anxiety about the potential harm of OTC or prescription medications may discourage pregnant women from adhering to beneficial treatments.