Is It Safe to Take Medications in Pregnancy?

The use of medications in pregnancy is common, especially those that are over-the-counter (OTC). Most medications are safe during pregnancy, but there are exceptions. The main categories of OTC drugs are cough, cold, runny nose, sinus, sore throat, gastrointestinal (nausea, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea), allergies, and pain.

Key takeaways:
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    Never consume more than the recommended dose; only the smallest effective dose should be used. To verify dose information, read the label and speak with your healthcare professional.
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    Never stop using drugs that have been prescribed to you without first consulting your doctor.
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    Depression treatment is crucial throughout pregnancy. The majority of antidepressants are safe to use while expecting, but some others need to be explored with your psychiatrist and OB/GYN.
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    Particularly if used during the first trimester, phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine (DayQuil, Sudafed, Claritin-D) may cause gastrointestinal abnormalities or disrupt blood flow to the placenta.
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    In most cases, if your doctor gives you an antibiotic while you're pregnant, it's because the infection it's treating is more serious than any possible negative effects of taking the medication.

The respiratory medications include antihistamines (allergies), decongestants (sinus), antitussives (cough), and expectorants (mucus). Prescription medications and vaccines are also given during pregnancy and largely depend on the safety profile, symptom severity, and seriousness of the condition. The safety profile is assessed for both maternal and fetal well-being and each drug is placed into a category based on fetal risk, primarily (A, B, C, D, and X) TABLE 1.

Conditions such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and cardiac disease warrant ongoing treatment with appropriate medications in pregnancy, primarily to avoid complications or worsening of the disease. Whereas, pregnancy-related symptoms include nausea and vomiting, allergies, and bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections that can require either OTC or prescription medications.

FDA Classification system for drugs in pregnancy

CategoryDescription
AControlled studies in humans show no risk to the fetus.
BNo controlled studies have been conducted in humans; animal studies show no risk to the fetus.
CNo controlled studies have been conducted in animals or humans.
DEvidence of human risk to the fetus exists; however, benefits may outweigh risks in certain situations.
XControlled studies in both animals and humans demonstrate fetal abnormalities; the risk in pregnant women outweighs any possible benefit.

The data for TABLE 1 is taken from animal studies and data from humans are based on drug post marketing surveillance reports. Ethically, it is difficult to test new drugs on pregnant women. Limitations of the above classification are:

  • New FDA-approved medications are all classified as Category C.
  • No FDA regulations require additional studies, making reclassification rare.

Drugs that may cause birth defects

Overall, 20-30% of common drugs are teratogens (can cause birth defects) while 7% of 1000 medications in the Physician’s Desk Reference are Category X and should never be used. Specific drugs that are unsafe in pregnancy are warfarin (blood thinner), isotretinoin (acne drug), valproic acid (anti-seizure), and all types of tetracyclines (antibiotics). Risk to the fetus is dependent on the timing of the exposure with the first trimester being the most vulnerable.

OTC Drugs for the common cold

There are other options besides drugs to treat common viral infections such as humidifiers, saline sprays or netty pots. TABLE 2 shows the common OTC cold, cough, and allergy drugs. Some allergy drugs can be used for morning sickness.

Drug (Brand)FDA Pregnancy categoryDrug classCrosses placenta?Clinical consideration
Chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)BAntihistamineUnknownOral antihistamine of choice.
Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)BAntihistamineYes
Possible oxytocin effects at higher doses.
Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)CDecongestantUnknownOral decongestant of choice but avoid during the first trimester.
Dextromethorphan (Delsym)CAntitussiveUnknownAppears to be safe in pregnancy.
Guaifenesin (Mucinex)CExpectorantUnknownMay be unsafe in first trimester.

The first two preferred choices are chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), and diphenhydramine (Benadryl); both are Category B. However, they are very sedating.

The second-generation antihistamines, which are non-sedating are loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), and cetirizine (Zyrtec), and have not been well studied. Cetirizine is the best choice if the first-line choices are not tolerated.]

Inhaled and oral decongestants can be used in pregnancy. Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) are commonly used as oral OTC decongestants. Pseudoephedrine should be avoided during the first trimester, however. Inhaled decongestants such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine) are both Category C and are considered safe in pregnancy.

Dextromethorphan (Delsym) is the best cough medication to use in pregnancy. Guaifenesin (Mucinex) is an expectorant that helps expel phlegm or mucus associated with viral respiratory infections. It should be avoided in the first trimester.

Pain relievers

For pain relief, acetaminophen is the most commonly used OTC drug in pregnancy, with at least 50% of women taking some time during their pregnancies, and it is considered a safe drug in pregnancy. This drug should be the drug of choice for high fevers since fevers have been associated with birth defects. It is not recommended that pregnant women use aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because recent studies showed a moderate association with birth defects and miscarriages. NSAIDs can inhibit labor, damage the fetal kidneys, and cause the closure of the ductus arteriosus—a blood vessel that is necessary for fetal life. Opioids are considered safe in pregnancy for pain not relieved with acetaminophen. However, they are prescription only.

Nausea, vomiting, and other GI disturbances

Morning sickness can occur anytime during the day and is usually an indicator of a healthy pregnancy. The nausea and vomiting can become severe in rare cases, and is called hyperemesis gravidarum. Sometimes, hospitalization is required to treat dehydration and control ongoing symptoms. Table 3 lists the different medications for nausea and vomiting.

Heart burn or acid reflux occurs in 30-50% of pregnancies due to the relaxation of the esophageal sphincter and the enlarging uterus. OTC antacids such as Tums or Rolaids are considered the best. TABLE 3 also lists antacids for use in pregnancy.

Diarrhea and constipation are two other pregnancy-associated issues Constipation is more common due to slowed GI motility and from the iron in some prenatal vitamins. Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) are not to be used in pregnancy because the salicylate ingredient may increase perinatal mortality.

Medications used to treat common GI problems during pregnancy

Nausea and Vomiting

ClassDrug (Brand)Clinical consideration
AntihistaminesDimenhydrinate (Dramamine), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), doxylamine (Unisom), doxylamine/pyridoxine (Diclegis).May cause drowsiness.
PhenothiazinesProchlorperazine (Compazine), promethazine (Phenergan).Sedation, anticholinergic effects, EPS.
BenzamidesMetoclopramide (Reglan).EPS, agitation.
Serotonin antagonistsOndansetron (Zofran).Headache.

Acid Reflux

ClassDrug (Brand)Clinical consideration
AntacidsAluminum/magnesium hydroxide (Rolaids, Maalox), calcium carbonate (Tums).Preferred.
Mucosal protectantsSucralfate (Carafate).Minimal systemic absorption; considered low risk.
H2 antagonistsCimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid), ranitidine (Zantac).Considered low risk; avoid first-trimester use; ranitidine is the most studied, making it the preferred agent.
Proton pump inhibitorsEsomeprazole (Nexium), omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), pantoprazole (Protonix), rabeprazole (Aciphex).Increased risk of hypospadias has been reported.

Diarrhea

ClassDrug (Brand)Clinical consideration
AntidiarrhealsAlosetron (Lotronex), diphenoxylate/atropine (Lomotil), loperamide (Imodium).Alosetron is only approved for use in patients with IBS-related diarrhea who have failed conventional therapy.

Constipation

ClassDrug (Brand)Clinical consideration
Osmotic laxativesLactulose (Enulose), magnesium citrate (Citroma), PEG (MiraLax).
Considered low risk.
Stimulant laxativesBisacodyl (Correctol), Senna (Senokot).
Short-term use.
Stool softenerDocusate (Colace).Short-term use.

Vaccines

The immunizations that cannot be given in pregnancy are live vaccinations, which include live-attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV); measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); varicella; and zoster. Recommended vaccines are non-live influenza vaccine and a few others that your doctor will discuss with you.

Seek your medical doctor's professional advice if you are unsure whether a medicine is okay to use while pregnant. Ask about recent studies as well because new findings may cause the labeling of pregnant medications to alter.

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