Dangers of Addiction and Pregnancy

Pregnancy can be a time of hope and anticipation; however, this major life transition can also create a lot of stress in women and their loved ones. Physical discomfort, emotional strain, and financial difficulties can cause anxiety and increase the risk of substance abuse in pregnant women or teens. Drug and alcohol abuse are more common during pregnancy than the general public may realize, yet because of the social stigma of prenatal substance abuse and the potential for legal complications, many women are reluctant to seek help. Finding specialized recovery programs that provide safe, supportive, and confidential treatment for pregnant females and their unborn infants is a top priority.

A consideration of the rates of substance abuse among women, and as compared to men, can provide insight into the general level of risk based on one’s sex status. By extension, the usefulness of this information carries over to the subset of pregnant women, although there are separate statistics on the latter group as well.

Per the results of the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the following data opens a window into the prevalence of drug abuse among females versus males:

  • In the month prior to the survey, in the 12+ age group, current drug use among males was greater than among females (11.5 percent versus 7.3 percent).
  • In terms of initiation into drug use, based on a 12-month survey review, 58.3 percent of the group of individuals who newly used drugs were female.
  • Regarding alcohol consumption, in the 12+ age group, the percentage of males and females who were current drinkers was similar (57.1 percent versus 47.5 percent).
  • Among Americans in the 12+ age group, males were more likely than females to drive under the influence (14.1 percent versus 7.9 percent).[1]
gender and dui

With the exception of alcohol use, it appears that males are generally more at risk of drug use (and the attendant risky behaviors like DUI) than females. Of the females who abuse drugs, compared to males, they may have unique needs based on background circumstances. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse discusses, the following are some social factors that are likely to be prevalent among females who use drugs compared to males who engage in drug use:

  • Lower level of educational attainment (i.e., not having completed high school)
  • Greater rate of unemployment
  • Health problems other than substance abuse
  • Higher incidence of prior suicide attempts
  • Greater likelihood of having experienced physical or sexual abuse[2]

An appreciation for the specific experiences a female may experience prior to or simultaneously with drug abuse can help to inform treatment responses. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, and research shows that sex and gender are relevant factors. In addition to sex-specific requirements females may have, pregnancy adds another layer of needs that will need to be addressed in treatment.


Pregnancy and Substance Abuse

The informational site Get the Facts provides data on the rates of substance abuse among pregnant females. The most recent data available was averaged over the years 2012-2013 and took into account different age groups as well as trimesters. The data collected reflects the following:

  • To provide a benchmark, the research noted that 11.4 percent of non-pregnant females, age 15-44, were current users of illicit drugs.
  • In the 15-44 age group, 5.4 percent of pregnant females were current users of illicit drugs.
  • When trimesters are considered, in the 15-44 age group of pregnant females, the rate of current illicit drug use was lower in the third trimester compared to the first and second trimesters (2.4 percent, 9 percent, and 4.8 percent respectively).
  • The age of the pregnant female was found to be a factor in the rate of current illicit drug use..
  • In the 15-17 age group, 14.6 percent of those who were pregnant were current users of illicit drugs. In the 18-25 group, the rate was 8.6 percent. In the 26-44 age group, the rate dropped to 3.2 percent.[3]

A pregnant female shares a placenta and umbilical cord with the fetus. From a biological standpoint, drugs impact body functions of both the fetus and the mother. The harm that may result from drug abuse depends on different contributing factors, including the type of drugs present, the point in pregnancy during which the drug use commenced, and the frequency of use.

As pregnancy is a unique health condition, the very fact of being with child can cause biological changes that make some drugs more harmful to the mother’s body and the fetus by extension. Further, fetuses have their own unique biological status. A fetus is highly sensitive to drugs and cannot eliminate them with the same proficiency as the mother. As a result, drugs can reach toxic levels in the body of a fetus in addition to causing a host of other health problems.[4]