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How the Opioid Epidemic is Affecting New Moms

Study reveals opioids to be the leading cause of pregnancy-related death in Utah

October 11, 2019


Opioid addiction and overdose have resulted in a national health crisis across America. In a recent study conducted by the University of Utah Health, researchers determined that moms were most vulnerable to relapse during the postpartum period

Continue reading to find out more about:

  • The opioid epidemic 
  • The University of Utah’s study 

Opioid Addiction: A Deadly Epidemic

An opioid is a type of psychoactive drug derived from the opium poppy. Examples include prescription painkillers like morphine, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The opioid crisis dates back to the late 1990s when medical professionals increased their prescription of opioid pain relievers, due to false assurance from pharmaceutical companies that the drugs were not addictive. 

Nearly half of young people who abuse heroin reported misusing prescription opioids before starting heroin
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that as many as 6 percent of those who misuse  prescription opioids transition to heroin. Additionally, around 80 percent of heroin users first misused prescription opioids. Image courtesy of Ventura County Responds

The most commonly prescribed opioids include:

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, etc.)
  • Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen (Vicodin, Zydone, etc.)
  • Morphine (Duramorph, MS Contin, etc.)
  • Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose, etc.) 
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic, Subsys, etc.) 

Opioid addiction is also called opioid use disorder. When taken at high doses, opioids can cause respiratory depression, or restricted breathing, which can lead to death. 

Cartoon depicting deaths due to opioid overdose
Over 130 people die every day in the United State due to opioid overdose. Image courtesy of The Roanoke Times

The Study: Opioids Leading Cause of Pregnancy-Related Death in Utah 

Because drug-induced death is the leading cause of death among reproductive-aged women, a team of researchers from the University of Utah set out to find how many pregnancy-associated deaths were attributed to drug-induced causes in order “to identify opportunities for intervention.” 

The researchers used data from the Utah Perinatal Mortality Review Committee to analyze all pregnancy-associated deaths (death of a woman during pregnancy or within the first year following a pregnancy) from 2005 to 2014. 

Women are disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic
The opioid epidemic disproportionately affects women, and since 1999, opioid-related deaths have increased at almost twice the rate for women as they have for men. Image courtesy of the Research Triangle Institute.

According to lead researcher Marcela Smid, M.D., M.S., M.A., "Death is the tip of the iceberg for moms who deal with addiction, these are the women that we can see. The point of this study is to determine when our moms are most vulnerable, and it's the postpartum period."

Smid and the other researchers determined that drug-induced death was the number one cause of pregnancy-associated death for women in the state of Utah. More than three-quarters of those deaths were linked to opioids. 

What Can You Do?

"80 percent of deaths were in late postpartum period after mom has finished her last check-up with the obstetrician," Smid says. "We need to really look at fourth trimester care and how to enhance this care, especially women with substance use."

If you know a new mom who has struggled with opioid addiction in the past, the best thing you can do for her is offer support. Check in to see how motherhood (or the pregnancy) is affecting her recovery, and make sure she has access to the resources she needs to stay healthy (group meetings, counseling, etc.). 

You can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to reach the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24/7 National Helpline for more information regarding substance abuse and what treatment services are available in your area. 

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