Methamphetamine has been around for decades. In recent years, its use, particularly the form known as crystal meth, has increased dramatically. This drug is inexpensive and highly addictive, making it very dangerous. As a result, the medical community is greatly concerned, and has been struggling to manage the effects of meth addiction.
In addition to its use to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), methamphetamine is most frequently used illegally, for recreation. Its street names include speed, crystal, ice, or meth, and it can be smoked, snorted, inhaled, swallowed or injected.
Meth is a psychoactive drug, meaning that it causes a chemical reaction in the brain, altering its function, and producing a pleasurable sensation that is extremely addictive. Because it acts as a stimulant, it can lead to an elevated heart rate, sweatiness, loss of appetite, dizziness, hallucinations, anxiety, and/or paranoia.
Drug abuse of any kind can result in serious health problems. With meth, long term use often results in overdose, leading to brain damage, cardiac failure, and/or death.
Meth Use and Pregnancy
Research findings indicate that 15.6% of pregnant women who seek treatment for substance abuse, do so for meth addiction. Additionally, 400,000 reproductive-aged female patients reported meth use in the previous month.
Meth users tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI), which increases complications during pregnancy. This results in more frequent hospitalization, and longer stays.
Use of meth by a pregnant woman is very dangerous and may reduce placental flow. Because an unborn child receives all nutrients from its mother, through the placenta, conditions such as fetal hypoxia (an insufficient amount of oxygen getting to the fetus) can develop. So, using meth while pregnant can be fatal.
Studies have identified several complications during pregnancy, and in the newborn, that can be directly contributed to prenatal exposure to methamphetamines. These include a higher risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery (before 37 weeks), poor growth babies (smaller than normal and/or with a tiny head size), low birth weight, and high blood pressure.
Prenatal exposure to meth may also result in placental abruption – the placenta pulls away from the uterus. This can cause very sudden death for both the mother and her unborn child.
No amount of drug or alcohol use is safe for pregnant women. The risks of negative consequences increase exponentially if meth use occurs throughout the entire pregnancy, and continues after childbirth.
Illicit drugs and/or prescription painkillers like opioids have received significant attention in the media, particularly their use by pregnant women, for good reason. Exposure to alcohol or drugs in utero, and after birth, has consistently been linked to a variety of life-altering, and fatal, health problems.
A new study presented in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015 was part of a refocusing by researchers on the effects of exposure to methamphetamines in the womb and after childbirth. This has become the new epidemic that medical professionals are facing.
The Effects of Meth Use on the Baby
A newborn, whose mother abused opioids or heroin during pregnancy, shows very obvious symptoms, such as jitteriness. Methamphetamine affected infants may demonstrate little more than a tendency to oversleep.
It is as meth babies get older that they begin to display the effects of exposure to methamphetamines. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), birth defects, challenges with behaviour and learning, as well as permanent cognitive and/or physical disabilities are possible consequences of meth use during pregnancy.
Meth babies are also more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders.
By approximately age 3, meth babies frequently display depression and anxiety. As they become ready to begin school, these children demonstrate ADHD, and its associated problems with impulsivity and behavioural challenges.
In adulthood, these individuals face a lifetime of difficulties at school, work and with relationships.
Being Born Addicted
One of the most tragic consequences of in utero substance abuse is neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Babies are nearly almost always born already addicted when the birth mother consumes drugs or alcohol while pregnant. They then suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by adults who are addicts.
Infants with NAS may have eating problems, challenges with sleeping (either too little or too much), poor muscle control (floppy or too tight), and/or difficulty breathing. They cannot communicate any other way, so they often have a high-pitched, and distressed cry, or scream.
These symptoms will last several weeks, and need to be monitored by a team of health care providers. This usually means a lengthy hospital stay, and a delay in the child being able to go home.
Ongoing Use After Childbirth
Understanding of this continues to evolve as more long-term research is possible, but findings do indicate that children whose mothers are managing their addiction, and providing a more stable home environment, develop better coping mechanisms than those who continue to be exposed to substance abuse after childbirth.
Managing substance abuse during pregnancy presents difficulties for the mother, and unborn child. Prenatal care that includes counselling about the dangers of meth abuse is the best to ensure that any addiction is addressed before conceiving.
Attempting to stop using meth, or any substance, alone, is very dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and potentially fatal to both the mother and her unborn child. The safest way to manage them is under the supervision of a team of health care professionals, in a treatment facility.
What Are the Risks of Methamphetamine Misuse During Pregnancy? Report Prepared for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): October, 2019
Substance Use During Pregnancy Report Prepared for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): July 24, 2019
Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Crystal Methamphetamines Addiction in Pregnancy Charlotte W., et al., NCBI, Article Date: June, 2019
Methamphetamines and Pregnancy Outcomes Tricia E. Wright, et al., NCBI, Article Date: March 1, 2016
Acute Methotrexate-Induced Crystal Nephropathy Garneau AP., et al., New England Journal of Medicine, Article Date: December 31, 2015
Licit and Illicit Drug Use during Pregnancy: Maternal, Neonatal and Early Childhood Consequences Report prepared for the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse (CCSA), 2013