Self-medication and pregnancy: things you should know

Over-the-counter medicines in pharmacies often appear harmless to the general public. However, many contraindications exist. Such medicines can potentially have serious consequences on health, especially when pregnant women use them without prior medical advice. To adopt the appropriate measures from the beginning of pregnancy, learn about the risks associated with self-medication.

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The dangers of self-medication during pregnancy

During pregnancy, headaches, stomach aches and heartburn can occur rapidly. Taking painkillers or stomach liners is often the first reflex. However, these medicines, which appeared harmless before pregnancy, can affect the health of the foetus.

What does self-medication mean?

Self-medication involves obtaining over-the-counter medicines that do not require a prescription. They are selected by the individual based on identifying one or more symptoms.

Precautions for use

Although non-prescription medicines are readily available, patients should be aware of the risks. Some recent medicines do not have the necessary history of use to ensure that they have no harmful effects on pregnant women.

On average, 60% of non-prescription medicines are prohibited or not recommended during pregnancy.

Since October 2017, a pictogram on a medicine box has indicated its risk. This warning is complementary to the contraindications identified in the leaflet to provide all the necessary information for the future mother.

A silhouette of a pregnant woman in a red triangle means that this medicine should be avoided during pregnancy. The same image in a red crossed-out circle shows that it is prohibited.

Risks for the foetus and mother

The dangers of medicines are noticeable from the 4th week of amenorrhoea. On ingesting medicines, their actions spread throughout the body of the mother-to-be. They are absorbed through the placenta and then enter the bloodstream of the foetus. During pregnancy, drugs are absorbed more slowly by the body than usual.

Depending on the concentration of the drug in the baby's blood, its effect can pose a risk to the baby's vital functions and cause a miscarriage or bleeding.

Some over-the-counter medicines can affect the development of the foetus. They are potentially responsible for 5% of malformations in babies. They can also slow the growth of the foetus' organs.

Among the most commonly used self-medication drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs are prohibited from the 6th month of pregnancy. Similarly, some medicines are used differently depending on how far along in the pregnancy you are.

Anti-inflammatory drugs can damage the foetus' heart or cause kidney disease. One dose is enough!

For pain relief, doctors generally prefer paracetamol. Aspirin may be considered, but only under certain conditions discussed with the doctor. Spasfon can be used to relieve pain due to contractions in consultation with the midwife or attending physician and according to a strict dosage.

According to a study on in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol, consequences for the child's health may appear years later, in adulthood. These include developmental changes, reduced fertility and the potential for cancer.

The use of certain over-the-counter drugs may also be contraindicated during parallel treatment. The mother-to-be may find herself taking an initial dose of medication, which, when combined with others, even over-the-counter, could have harmful effects on her body and the progress of the pregnancy.

The same applies to homoeopathy and phytotherapy. Even if such compounds are produced from plants, certain active ingredients, as in conventional medicines, are contraindicated during pregnancy.

Self-medication: adopting an appropriate approach

Not all medicines available without a prescription are automatically harmful to the health of the mother and foetus. However, consulting professionals and obtaining medical advice is essential. They ensure that all risks for the mother and foetus are avoided.

Consult health professionals

Before using any medication, a pregnant woman must inform her doctor or discuss it with the pharmacist. Gynaecologists and obstetricians, doctors and midwives can give the mother-to-be the best advice.

Even if the information is present on the medicine boxes, certain precautions should be considered depending on the patient's history. Several medical factors indicate the most suitable and least risky medication.

It is best to be transparent with your doctor or pharmacist. They must know your condition to guide you towards the medication that will generate the fewest risks for your health and that of your child.

Similarly, a baby's arrival should be planned in consultation with the doctor if a pregnant woman is being monitored and treated.

The daily use of medicines over a long period leaves traces in the body. They can take up to a year to be completely absorbed. It is a good idea to wait the time advised by the doctor before conceiving a child.

Inform your practitioner

If self-medication has been practised, you should inform your doctor. This information is essential to avoid any risks to the health of the baby.

Depending on the case and the medication used, a pregnant woman can be monitored more closely by her doctor to prevent possible complications that could prove irreparable if detected too late.

Sometimes, mothers-to-be discover their pregnancies after the second or third month. During this time, if treatment or medication has been taken, it is important to inform the doctor.

Alternative and natural medicines

Fortunately, some ailments can be alleviated by practising alternative, so-called soft, medicine, such as acupuncture or sophrology.

Homoeopathic doctors can also prescribe more natural remedies for future mothers.

When a pregnant woman suffers from a cold or cough, conventional medicines are strongly contraindicated. Sea water nose wash and homoeopathy can help.

Certain homoeopathic treatments have proven effective in calming nausea or improving digestion in pregnant women.

Chamomile, lime and valerian teas are known for their soothing and relaxing benefits in calming anxiety and improving sleep quality.

Some midwives use sophrology or yoga during birth preparation. These practices can ease anxiety and back pain, avoiding the need for medication.

To learn about all these options, mothers-to-be are encouraged to discuss them with their obstetricians or midwives.

Even after pregnancy, self-medication is not recommended, especially for women who have chosen to breastfeed. The medication passes into the breast milk. It is therefore essential to assess the danger of the medication if it is absorbed by the baby.

Some medicines can be taken during pregnancy but are prohibited during breastfeeding. Doctors, midwives and pharmacists can give the mother the best advice.

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