Pregnant women may overestimate risk of some drugs

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Pregnant women are often steering clear of drugs that might ease problems like nausea and urinary tract infections even though the treatments may be safe, a U.K. study suggests.

Researchers surveyed 1,120 women about common problems they experienced during pregnancy and whether they thought medications to treat these issues were harmful or beneficial.

Overall, about 76 percent of the women reported taking medication for at least one of eight common conditions during pregnancy including nausea, heartburn, constipation, colds, urinary tract infections, neck or pelvic pain, headaches and sleeping problems.

But for some problems, many women didn't take medications, even when drugs might not be harmful or forgoing treatment might be dangerous, researchers report in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy.

"Many women avoid medications as they fear harming the child," said lead study author Michael Twigg, a pharmacy researcher at the University of East Anglia.

"We don't want women to avoid medication and suffer unnecessarily from conditions that can be treated relatively easily," Twigg added by email.

To understand how women think about medication use during pregnancy, Twigg and colleagues analyzed data from an online survey of women in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Roughly 40 percent of the participants were pregnant when they completed the survey, while the rest had given birth within the previous year.

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About 17 percent of the women reported having a chronic medical condition, most often asthma, allergies, depression, anxiety or thyroid issues.

For common pregnancy issues like nausea, sleep problems and constipation, women often avoided medication even though there are certain treatments available that are not considered harmful, the study found.

Even though about 79 percent of women experienced nausea during pregnancy, for example, only around 10 percent of them took medication.

Non-prescription anti-nausea drugs offer an example of how women may needlessly suffer and potentially allow small problems to escalate into bigger ones by avoiding treatment, said Angela Lupattelli, a study coauthor and pharmacy researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway.

"Nausea and vomiting can be very devastating for women, and it is very important that women do not become dehydrated or unhealthy as a result of pregnancy sickness," Lupattelli added by email.

With sleep, 67 percent of women reported problems but only about 1 percent of them took drugs even though there are some nonprescription options that are not considered harmful during pregnancy.

Roughly 55 percent of women said they suffered from constipation, but only 19 percent of them turned to medication for relief. In this case, too, certain medications are thought to be safe during pregnancy.

Most worrisome, only about 65 percent of women who developed urinary tract infections during pregnancy took medications, a concern because these can escalate into kidney infections that can be life threatening for both mothers and their babies.

"Some untreated conditions such as urinary tract infections mentioned in the article, but also chronic conditions including depression, may cause severe complications, endangering the health of the mother and her unborn child," said Marleen van Gelder, a pharmacy researcher at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands who wasn't involved in the study.

One problem, of course, is that drug trials exclude pregnant women for ethical reasons, limiting how much we know about whether many treatments are truly safe during pregnancy, van Gelder added by email.

Safety can also vary by trimester, and the benefits and harms of treatment may depend on the severity of women's symptoms and other aspects of their pregnancy or medical history, ven Gelder noted.

One limitation of an online study is that the subset of women who choose to participate may not reflect the broader population, the authors note. The study team also lacked participants' medical records or data on their drug use during pregnancy to assess how the severity of certain conditions might have influenced the women's opinions about medication.

Women should ask a health professional when they have questions about drugs during pregnancy, Twigg advised.

"The consequences of not discussing appropriate use of medicines during pregnancy . . . can be serious," Twigg said.