Drugs That Cause Birth Defects (2023)

Drugs That Cause Birth Defects (1)Today there is generally widespread public awareness that using illegal drugs and alcohol during pregnancy can cause serious developmental birth defects. However, the use of certain prescription drugs during pregnancy can cause birth defects. Below are a list of prescription medications linked to birth defects.

  • What medications should you avoid during pregnancy?

Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are some of the most widely utilized drugs in the field of mental health. Millions of people take SSRIs for the treatment of depression and anxiety. Until fairly recently SSRIs were considered safe during pregnancy.

However, some studies suggest certain drugs in the SSRI category during pregnancy created a risk of newborn hypertension; spina bifida, heart defects, and other birth defects. The SSRI drugs that cause these problems include Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, Symbax, Fluvoxamine.

The science on how these drugs cause birth defects and other complications is still evolving. But the list of suspected complications from SSRIs includes spontaneous abortion and congenital malformations in multiple organ systems. These complications include anencephaly, pulmonary defects, respiratory defects, cardiac defects, craniosynostosis, nervous system defects and gastrointestinal defects.

The opinion that these drugs cause birth defects is far from unanimous. Many doctors and certainly the pharmaceutical companies disagree that SSRI drugs cause birth defects. They argue that the science is still unclear, and that the data is skewed because women who take SSRIs are statistically older - which increases many risks - and are more likely to smoke, take other medications, and struggle with obesity. They also argue that depression alone is a risk factor.

The SSRI debate underscores the difficulty in linking drugs during pregnancy and birth defects, especially when the birth defect occurs after first-trimester exposure to the medication, In these cases, it is sometimes clear if the defect was caused by drug exposure or other factors. This is particularly complicated with multifactorial defects that are known to have inherited genetic susceptibility.


Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs that have been in use since the 1950s.Some examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Restoril (temazepam).

Benzodiazepines work by boosting the effectiveness of certain chemical electrical activities within the brain that trigger feelings of calm. Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed for the treatment of various mental health conditions such as anxiety and insomnia. They are also used to control seizures in people with epilepsy or cerebral palsy. The use of benzodiazepines during pregnancy has been linked to developmental birth defects involving lack of muscle control, cardiac and respiratory problems.

Some believe the absolute risk of these defects is still relatively low, and the benefits of treating anxiety or sleep disorders with benzodiazepines may outweigh the risks in some cases. It is important for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to talk to their doctor about any medications they are taking, including benzodiazepines. In some cases, it may be possible to switch to a different medication or to reduce the dose of the medication to lower the risk of birth defects.


Accutane is a synthetic form of Vitamin A that is primarily prescribed for the treatment of severe acne. Isotretinoin is the active ingredient in this medication.

Accutane is high on the list of drugs that cause birth defects. Numerous studies demonstrate the drug causes birth defects and stillbirth if used during pregnancy.

According to the FDA safety data, continued use of Accutane during pregnancy will result in as much as a 35% chance of having a baby born with a birth defect. The chances of having a baby with a birth defect normally are less than 1%. In fact, Accutane is so potentially harmful to unborn children that women should stop using the drug three years before a planned pregnancy.


Most first-generation antibiotics are completely safe for use during pregnancy. These include well-known drugs such as amoxicillin, penicillin, ampicillin, and clindamycin. However, recent studies have established a potential link between a particular group of advanced antibiotics and certain developmental birth defects including cleft lip, heart defects, and a skull malformation called anencephaly. The specific antibiotics linked to these birth defects are listed below:

  • Nitrofurantoin: a newer type of antibiotic that is often used to treat chronic or difficult urinary tract infections. The drug is also used for the treatment of bladder inflammation.
  • Sulfonamides: sulfonamides are one of the earliest forms of antibiotics. Known as bacteriostatic antibiotics they contain chemicals from the sulfonamide group. They work by preventing bacteria cells from synthesizing folic acid which they need to grow and multiply. Popular drugs in this group include Gantrisin, Bactrim (Septra), Sulfadiazine, and Zonegran.
  • Tetracyclines: tetracyclines are broad-spectrum polyketide antibiotics that are particularly effective against certain types of bacteria. Use of tetracyclines has decreased in recent years because of problems with resistance. These antibiotics are primarily used for the treatment of acne rosacea and certain sexually transmitted diseases. Popular brand name drugs of this type include Solodyn, Doryx, Vibramycin, Oracea, and Monodox.

Fluconazole / Diflucan

Fluconazole (brand name Diflucan) is a very popular antifungal medication that has been in use since the 1990s. Fluconazole is usually prescribed for the treatment of yeast infections in women and other types of fungal infections. When used during pregnancy fluconazole can significantly increase the risk of having a miscarriage.


NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) include many of the most widely used over-the-counter pain fever-reducing medications in the world. Millions of people used NSAIDs regularly. NSAIDs include any ibuprofen-based pain relief drug. The most popular over the counter NSAIDs include Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve, and Excedrin.

Prescription-strength NSAIDs include Diclofenac, Lodine, and Meloxicam. Some studies have shown that NSAIDs present a small risk of neural tube and other birth defects. Although these risks are very small, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should probably use alternative medications such as Tylenol. (We are also seeing Tylenol autism lawsuits in 2023.)

Are we sure NSAIDs cause birth defects? No.While there is conflicting evidence regarding the risk of birth defects associated with NSAID use during pregnancy, some studies have suggested a potential link. One large study found an association between the use of NSAIDs during the first trimester of pregnancy and an increased risk of some types of birth defects, including heart defects, neural tube defects, and oral clefts. However, other studies have not found a significant association between NSAID use during pregnancy and birth defects.


Anticonvulsants are drugs are used to help prevent or control various types of seizures. Research has shown that a handful of anti-seizure medications are linked to increased rates of certain birth defects such as organ abnormalities, cleft lips, and developmental delays. The particular anticonvulsant drugs linked with this risk include Tegretol, Depakote, Lamictal, and Dilantin. Unfortunately controlling seizures in pregnant women is also important to the health of the baby because certain types of seizures are known to trigger miscarriages.

Research has shown that certain anticonvulsants, such as valproic acid and carbamazepine, can increase the risk of birth defects when taken during pregnancy. One study found that valproic acid (Depakene, Depakote, and Stavzor) use during the first trimester of pregnancy was associated with a 10% risk of major congenital malformations, compared to a 2-3% risk in the general population. Another study found that carbamazepine use during pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects. More research is needed on much of this. But the concern is real.

Because the risks associated with anticonvulsant use during pregnancy can be serious, it is important for women who are taking these medications and who are planning to become pregnant to discuss their options with their healthcare provider. In some cases, it may be possible to switch to a different medication or to adjust the dosage to minimize the risks to the fetus.

Additional Information About Drugs & Pregnancy This is not an exhaustive list of medications that can cause birth defects. For more detailed information about birth defects from drugs, including the research and studies behind various safety warnings, visit the Centers for Disease Control's web page on safe medication use during pregnancy. Finally, Internet research is great. But always consult with your doctor on what is best for you and your condition.


Which drug is known to cause birth defects? ›

The medical community was slow to discover the danger of thalidomide because the drug gave rise to birth defects only when taken between the fourth and eighth weeks of pregnancy.

What drugs are unsafe in pregnancy? ›

Medicines you need to avoid during pregnancy
  • The acne medicine isotretinoin. ...
  • ACE inhibitors, such as benazepril and lisinopril. ...
  • Some medicines to control seizures, such as valproic acid.
  • Methotrexate. ...
  • Warfarin (such as Coumadin). ...
  • Lithium.

What are the four causes of birth defects? ›

Smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking certain drugs during pregnancy. Having certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy. Taking certain medications, such as isotretinoin (a drug used to treat severe acne). Having someone in your family with a birth defect.

Which drug is the leading cause of birth defects in the United States and is 100% preventable? ›

Using alcohol during pregnancy is the leading cause of preventable birth defects, developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a preventable condition.

What happens if I take ibuprofen while pregnant? ›

Ibuprofen and pregnancy

Ibuprofen is not usually recommended in pregnancy, unless it's prescribed by a doctor, especially if you're more than 30 weeks pregnant. This is because ibuprofen can affect your baby's circulation and kidneys. There may also be a link between taking ibuprofen in early pregnancy and miscarriage.

What are the 5 pregnancy risk Categories for drugs? ›

In 1979, the FDA established five letter risk categories - A, B, C, D or X - to indicate the potential of a drug to cause birth defects if used during pregnancy. The categories were determined by assessing the reliability of documentation and the risk to benefit ratio.

Can you take Adderall while pregnant? ›

None of the medications used to treat ADHD — including Vyvanse, Adderall, and Ritalin — are proven to be safe to use during pregnancy, but they are also not proven to be harmful, according to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).

What is the number 1 birth defect? ›

The most common birth defects are: heart defects. cleft lip/palate. Down syndrome.

What is the most serious birth defect? ›

Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works. Critical congenital heart defects (also called critical CHDs or critical congenital heart disease) are the most serious congenital heart defects.

What is the most common birth defect in the US? ›

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect in the United States, affecting nearly 1 percent of, or about 40,000, births per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is the only 100% preventable birth defect? ›

Fetal alcohol syndrome can lead to many birth defects and health issues in babies. This birth defect is 100 percent preventable if a woman modifies her drinking habits before becoming pregnant and stops drinking when she becomes pregnant. The most common birth defects are found in the heart.

Can you tell if your baby will have birth defects? ›

You may have prenatal tests (medical tests you get during pregnancy) to check your baby for birth defects. These may include screening tests and diagnostic tests. A screening test is a medical test to see if you're at risk or if your baby is at risk for certain health conditions, like birth defects.

What week do birth defects occur? ›

In general, major defects of the body and internal organs are more likely to occur between 3 to 12 embryo / fetal weeks. This is the same as 5 to 14 gestational weeks (weeks since the first day of your last period).

What are the two main causes of a genetic birth defect? ›

What causes birth defects?
  • Genetic problems. One or more genes might have a change or mutation that results in them not working properly, such as in Fragile X syndrome. ...
  • Chromosomal problems. ...
  • Infections. ...
  • Exposure to medications, chemicals, or other agents during pregnancy.
Sep 1, 2017

Can stress cause birth defects? ›

A growing body of research demonstrates that stress before and during pregnancy is associated with poor birth outcomes and subsequent poor health outcomes for children.

What can accidentally cause a miscarriage? ›

Several factors may cause miscarriage:
  • Infection.
  • Exposure to TORCH diseases.
  • Hormonal imbalances.
  • Improper implantation of fertilized egg in your uterine lining.
  • How old you are.
  • Uterine abnormalities.
  • Incompetent cervix (your cervix begins to open too early in pregnancy).
Jul 19, 2022

What if I took Aleve before I knew I was pregnant? ›

If you took Aleve for a headache or other pain before you knew you were pregnant, you will probably be fine. Just stop taking it and let your doctor know.

Can you take Benadryl while pregnant? ›

Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a safe allergy medication to take during pregnancy. It belongs to a class of medications called antihistamines. Benadryl can cause drowsiness, dizziness, or weakness. These can raise your risk of falling or accidentally hurting yourself during pregnancy.

In which stage of pregnancy is a fetus most susceptible to drugs? ›

Transplacental transfer of drugs increases in the third trimester due to increased maternal and placental blood flow, decreased thickness and increased surface area of the placenta[9].

What are examples of high risk pregnancies? ›

What Does "High-Risk" Pregnancy Mean?
  • is age 17 or younger.
  • is age 35 or older.
  • was underweight or overweight before becoming pregnant.
  • is pregnant with twins, triplets, or other multiples.
  • has high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, or another health problem.

What type of pregnancy is high risk? ›

Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs can put a pregnancy at risk. Maternal health problems. High blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, epilepsy, thyroid disease, heart or blood disorders, poorly controlled asthma, and infections can increase pregnancy risks.

Can you take Xanax while pregnant? ›

Even when anxiety and depression are present, there are certain individuals who should not use Xanax. Pregnant women fall into that category. Xanax — a brand name for alprazolam — is a prescription benzodiazepine that works by calming central nervous system impulses.

Can I take Zoloft while pregnant? ›

SSRIs are generally considered an option during pregnancy, including citalopram (Celexa) and sertraline (Zoloft). Potential complications include maternal weight changes and premature birth. Most studies show that SSRIs aren't associated with birth defects.

At what week does the umbilical cord form? ›

Umbilical cord development begins in the embryologic period around week 3 with the formation of the connecting stalk. By week 7, the umbilical cord has fully formed, composed of the connecting stalk, vitelline duct, and umbilical vessels surrounding the amniotic membrane.

How can I prevent my baby from being abnormal? ›

Commit to Healthy Choices to Help Prevent Birth Defects
  1. Plan ahead. Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. ...
  2. Avoid harmful substances. Avoid alcohol at any time during pregnancy. ...
  3. Choose a healthy lifestyle. Keep diabetes under control. ...
  4. Talk with your healthcare provider.

Can birth defects be seen on ultrasound? ›

An ultrasound creates pictures of the baby. This test is usually completed around 18–20 weeks of pregnancy. The ultrasound is used to check the size of the baby and looks for birth defects or other problems with the baby.

At what age are birth defects more common? ›

Risks for chromosome abnormalities by maternal age

The risk of chromosomal abnormality increases with maternal age. The chance of having a child affected by Down syndrome increases from about 1 in 1,250 for a woman who conceives at age 25, to about 1 in 100 for a woman who conceives at age 40.

Can sperm cause birth defects? ›

For most exposures, however, sexual intercourse during pregnancy is not expected to increase the chance of birth defects. This is because the amount of substance or the exposure that is present in the semen is usually not large enough to cause problems for the developing baby.

Can birth defects be prevented? ›

Can birth defects be prevented? Though not all birth defects can be avoided, prenatal care and awareness of past or current conditions can help with prevention. Prenatal care. Taking a daily prenatal vitamin that includes at least 400 micrograms of folic acid can help prevent a variety of birth defects.

Which birth defects are hereditary? ›

Genetic Disorders and Defects
  • Angelman Syndrome. ...
  • Biotinidase Deficiency. ...
  • Birth Defects. ...
  • Carpenter Syndrome. ...
  • Cleft Lip/Cleft Palate. ...
  • Cloverleaf Deformity. ...
  • Clubbed Foot. ...
  • Craniofacial Disorder.

What disabilities can be detected before birth? ›

Examples of genetic disorders that can be diagnosed before birth include:
  • Cystic fibrosis.
  • Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
  • Hemophilia A.
  • Polycystic kidney disease.
  • Sickle cell disease.
  • Tay-Sachs disease.
  • Thalassemia.

What drugs are Category A for pregnancy? ›

Category A Drugs
  • Thiamine, Pyridoxine, Folic acid.
  • Docusate, Senna, Bisacodyl.
  • Dextromethorphan.
  • Doxylamine.
  • Levothyroxine.
  • Isoniazid.
Apr 21, 2021

What is a Category B drug in pregnancy? ›

Category B drugs include prenatal vitamins, acetaminophen and several other medications used routinely and safely during pregnancy. If there is a clinical need for a Category B drug, it is considered safe to use it.

What medications should pregnant nurses not handle? ›

Hazardous medications include those for chemotherapy, some antivirals (aerosolized ribavirin, entecavir, valganciclovir), hormone agents (testosterone, misoprostol), and bioengineered drugs that interfere with cell growth or proliferation or with DNA synthesis.

What is rule of 5 in pregnancy? ›

The 5-1-1 Rule: The contractions come every 5 minutes, lasting 1 minute each, for at least 1 hour. Fluids and other signs: You might notice amniotic fluid from the sac that holds the baby.

What is drug category C in pregnancy? ›

Category C: Risk cannot be ruled out. There are no satisfactory studies in pregnant women, but animal studies demonstrated a risk to the fetus; potential benefits of the drug may outweigh the risks.

Which pregnancy category is considered the riskiest? ›

Category X

Studies in animals or humans have demonstrated fetal abnormalities and/or there is positive evidence of human fetal risk based on adverse reaction data from investigational or marketing experience, and the risks involved in use of the drug in pregnant women clearly outweigh potential benefits.

What week is the highest risk of miscarriage? ›

Weeks 0 to 6

These early weeks mark the highest risk of miscarriage. A woman can have a miscarriage in the first week or two without realizing she's pregnant. It may even seem like a late period.

What are 2 common causes of miscarriage? ›

Certain uterine conditions or weak cervical tissues (incompetent cervix) might increase the risk of miscarriage. Smoking, alcohol and illicit drugs. Women who smoke during pregnancy have a greater risk of miscarriage than do nonsmokers. Heavy alcohol use and illicit drug use also increase the risk of miscarriage.

Which sleeping position can cause miscarriage? ›

A 2019 review of medical studies suggests that sleeping on your back carries risks, but it doesn't seem to matter whether you sleep on your right or left side. These studies do have some flaws, though. Third trimester pregnancy loss is very uncommon. Therefore, there aren't many cases from which to draw conclusions.

Why should a woman tell a dentist when she is pregnant? ›

However, it's important that you tell your dentist you are pregnant before X-rays are done so the staff can provide a special garment or device to shield your pelvis and abdomen from exposure.

Can I take Benadryl while pregnant? ›

Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a safe allergy medication to take during pregnancy. It belongs to a class of medications called antihistamines. Benadryl can cause drowsiness, dizziness, or weakness. These can raise your risk of falling or accidentally hurting yourself during pregnancy.

What are the most common drugs used during pregnancy? ›

The most commonly used drugs include antiemetics, antacids, antihistamines, analgesics, antimicrobials, diuretics, hypnotics, tranquilizers, and social and illicit drugs. Despite this trend, firm evidence-based guidelines for drug use during pregnancy are still lacking.

What are the three main risks related to the use of medication during pregnancy? ›

Effects of medication, drugs or substances during pregnancy

impacting on the growth of baby's organs. impacting on the placenta which is a source of food and nutrients for your baby. increasing the risk of pre-term birth.

When should a pregnant nurse stop working? ›

A woman with an uncomplicated pregnancy should be allowed to and encouraged to continue working for as long as she chooses. This actually means you can work without interruption until the onset of labor.

Which drug class is contraindicated in pregnancy? ›

FDA classifies various drugs used in pregnancy into five categories, categories A, B, C, D and X. Category A is considered the safest category and category X is absolutely contraindicated in pregnancy.


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