Anti-depressants help millions of Americans relieve symptoms of depression; however, recent studies have shown that anti-depressants can cause devastating birth injuries when taken during pregnancy. While anti-depressants can pose serious threats to unborn babies, stopping anti-depressant use could also pose serious risks to the mother and her child.
How Does Pregnancy Affect Depression
During pregnancy, the body releases a variety of hormones, some of which can increase the symptoms of depression. Women who suffer from depression during pregnancy might not seek the best prenatal care, eat healthy foods, or take prenatal vitamins that could help ensure the health of their baby. Women who experience depression during pregnancy are also more likely to have postpartum depression and difficulty bonding with their child.
What Types of Anti-Depressants Can Cause Birth Defects?
One of the most widely prescribed classes of anti-depressants, called Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), are very effective in treating depression but can cause a variety of birth defects. SSRIs are believed to increase levels of serotonin, a chemical found in the brain thought to contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness. While these medications often do help with depression and other mental health struggles, in pregnant women SSRIs have been shown to pass through the placenta and impact the development of the fetus.
Types of Birth Defects Caused By Anti-Depressants
While there are many birth defects that can be caused by anti-depressants, the most common include heart defects, persistent pulmonary hypertension, cranial birth defects, cleft palate, congenital heart disease, spina bifida, and others. Different types of SSRIs like Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, and Lexapro can affect unborn babies differently and come with unique sets of risks.
What has made anti-depressants so dangerous for pregnant women in the past is that many manufacturers failed to adequately warn expecting mothers of the risks. While many studies have proven the link between anti-depressants and birth defects, those analyses do little for those who have already suffered damages from pharmaceutical manufacturers’ failure to warn.
A Historical Review of Prescription Medications and Birth Defects
Only in the past few decades has a real understanding of the relationship between medications that a mother took during pregnancy and the health of her child. It was widely believed that there was a barrier that protected the child by not allowing harmful substances to be consumed by the fetus.
The truth, or course, is that there is a tight connection between what a mother consumes and the health of a child. This was hard won knowledge, however. Thalidomide, introduced as a morning sickness drug around the world in the late 1950s, caused malformed limbs and other birth defects in at least 10,000 children, only half of whom survived.
In the decades since, the public has demanded more accountability from drug manufacturers to ensure that medicines marketed to pregnant women are safe. In the United States, the government has answered these calls and has instituted a formal testing process to make sure these women and their children are protected from dangerous drugs.
Most birth defects develop during the first trimester of pregnancy. This is when a developing fetus is at its most sensitive and fragile. That being said, they can occur at anytime – especially when external factors like dangerous medicines play a role.
Common birth defects that can be caused by prescription medication use during pregnancy include congenital heart defects and neural tube defects (notably spinal bifida). The medicines that cause these sorts of problems are known as teratogens. They are known to carry a risk of increasing the likelihood of environmental birth defects.
Medications that can cause birth defects when taking during pregnancy include:
- Asprin – An unassuming over-the-counter remedy for headaches may interfere with a fetus’s blood clotting and cause brain damage, especially when taken in the second half of the pregnancy.
- Thalidomide – The drug that started us down the path to better regulation can cause malformed limbs, blindness and heat defects.
- Tetracycline – This common antibiotic can stunt bone growth in the unborn.
- Warfarin – A blood thinner, can cause the nervous system to not develop properly, as well as an increased risk of preterm births.
- Anti-depressants – Many anti-depressants have been found to increase the risk of several birth defects, notable atrial septal defects and ventral septal defects, also known as holes in the heart.
- Zofran – An anti-nausea medicine for cancer patients, is prescribed off-label for morning sickness. It was untested for use on pregnant women, and the unintended consequences include cleft lips and cleft palates, club feet, and heart defects.