Pregnancy has its discomforts but it turns out a lot of pregnant women may be filling out prescriptions for painkillers despite associated risks with the medication. In particular, prescriptions for opioids were filled by over a quarter of reproductive-age women on private insurance and over a third of women within the same age group enrolled in Medicaid.

Opioids are usually prescribed by doctors for treating moderate to severe levels of pain but they may also be found in certain prescription medications for coughs. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, warned that taking opioids in the early stages of a pregnancy can lead to not just birth defects but other serious problems for both the mother and the infant.

"Many women of reproductive age are taking these medicines and may not know they are pregnant and therefore may be unknowingly exposing their unborn child," he said, adding this is why it is important for health care providers to be thorough in assessing conditions in women who are of reproductive age before making prescriptions.

Researchers from the CDC analyzed data from 2008 to 2012 derived from two health insurance claims datasets: one on women between the ages of 15 and 44 with private health insurance and the other on women from the same age group that are enrolled under Medicaid. The data revealed that 28 percent of those on private insurance, on average, filled a prescription every year for opioid medication from a pharmacy compared to 39 percent of those enrolled in Medicaid.

There may be different reasons for the higher rate in Medicaid-enrolled women, one of which may be differences in the medications prescribed as dictated by differences in medications covered by health plans. It may also be due to different health services or even differences in underlying conditions prevalent among those enrolled under Medicaid which may affect the kinds of medications they can use.

Previous research on opioid use during pregnancy showed increased risks of neural tube defects (affects the baby's spine and brain), gastroschisis (a defect in the abdominal wall of a baby) and congenital heart defects. Babies born to mothers who were on medications during their pregnancy also run the risk of developing neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition where the baby develops withdrawal symptoms from medications they were exposed to in the womb.

To better inform health care providers and women about the use of medications during pregnancy, the CDC launched an initiative called "Treating for Two: Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy."

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