Survey reveals risks of medication in pregnancy “overestimated”

Pregnant women are “overestimating the risks” of taking over the counter and prescribed medication, according to new UK research carried out by pharmacists.

The findings revealed that women are choosing not to treat common pregnancy symptoms such as nausea, heartburn and aches and pains with medications.

It was also seen that mothers-to-be are choosing not to take medication for urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can cause significant complications and harm the fetus if left untreated.

The researchers, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), explained that while previous research has examined the number and extent of medicines that pregnant women may take, the beliefs and risk perception surrounding their use had not been studied.

"We wanted to know how these beliefs and fears relate to actual medication taking and whether they stop women taking medication which is actually safe,” said lead researcher Dr Michael Twigg, from UEA's School of Pharmacy.

As part of the study, a total of 1,120 volunteers carried out an online survey in which they were asked about which common conditions they had experienced during pregnancy. These included: nausea, heartburn, constipation, colds, UTIs, neck and pelvic pains, headaches and sleeping problems.

The women were asked about the extent to which they thought medicines to treat these conditions were harmful or beneficial. They were also asked about whether they deliberately avoided any medicines during pregnancy, and if so which ones.

It was found that just over three quarters of the women used some form of medication to treat at least one common condition experienced during pregnancy.

Relatively few took medication for nausea (9.5 %), constipation (19.2 %) or sleeping problems (1.1 %).However, these symptoms can be alleviated by changes to diet and lifestyle,” said Dr Twigg.

In addition, some misperceptions about the dangers of medication could have a negative impact on the unborn baby, he warned.

"We also found that a large number of women thought that taking paracetamol during pregnancy was risky and would avoid it. It is, however, perfectly safe. One of the most worrying things we discovered was that many women who experienced a UTI did not take medication for it. If left untreated, UTIs can cause significant complications and harm the fetus.”

In general, women who did not take medication perceived the risk to be greater than those who chose to take medication. According to Dr Twigg, the results illustrate a knowledge gap and a wide range of misperceptions about medication use in pregnancy.

"What this all shows us is that women need more information about the safety of medications during pregnancy to encourage them to treat conditions effectively. Understanding women's concerns is also essential to promote adherence to prescribed medications during pregnancy,” he said.

The authors suggest that healthcare professionals should explore patient’s beliefs regarding medication at the first maternity care visit to promote appropriate medication use in pregnancy and hence ensure maternal–fetal health.

“Women's beliefs about medication use during their pregnancy: a UK perspective” was published in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy earlier this month.

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