What medications can pregnant women take?

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From the moment you discover you're pregnant, every decision you make will factor in your baby – in a sense you're thinking for two.

So for most women, forgoing anything that poses a risk to the baby (whether that be alcohol or skydiving) is a no-brainer. But what about medication?

I suffered from chronic morning sickness during my first pregnancy. But rather than taking the medication my GP prescribed, I soldiered on. In theory I knew it was safe, but in practice, with my baby growing inside me, I just wasn't prepared to risk any harm at all. And I know from speaking to friends that this very common amongst mums-to-be.

But a new study from the university of East Anglia in the UK has found that pregnant women are doing it tough for no reason, often overestimating the dangers of taking over-the-counter medications.

On top of this, researchers found that many women chose not to medicate common pregnancy ailments such as nausea, heartburn and general aches and pains in case they hurt the baby.

Alarmingly, the study also discovered that pregnant women are routinely avoiding medication for urinary tract infections (UTIs), which if left untreated could actually harm the baby more.

During the study, women completed an online survey in which they were asked to rate different medications as either harmful or beneficial. They were also asked which medications they were actively avoiding.

Dr Michael Twigg, from UEA's School of Pharmacy, said that as many as 72 per cent of women deliberately avoided certain medications during their pregnancies. This included over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, cough and cold remedies, antihistamines and nasal decongestants.

"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," he said.

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"Understanding women's concerns is also essential to promote adherence to prescribed medications during pregnancy."

Dr Daria Fielder says that she's not surprised by the results of the study, adding, "When women fall pregnant they generally do not wish to take any medications other than recommended vitamin supplements."

However, Dr Fielder says that avoiding medications might not be a bad approach to take.

"There are many medications available over the counter and some of them include herbal preparations that may not be safe in pregnancy," she says.

Dr Fielder notes that medications are generally divided into safety categories based on the best data that's available. Medications are grouped into five categories: A, B, C, D and X.

"Category A medications are safe in pregnancy, they include paracetamol and common antibiotics, such as Amoxicillin," she explains.

"Some medications in category B and C are commonly prescribed by doctors and considered safe in pregnancy. Others – D and X – are generally not recommended and should be avoided."

Dr Fielder says that the safest approach is to use paracetamol when necessary, but to consult your doctor if there is anything else that you need.  

That's not to say that women should suffer through unwanted pregnancy symptoms or common colds.

"If you are unwell during your pregnancy don't hesitate to discuss your concerns with your GP – they'll be able to advise you about safe treatment options," she says.

Alternately, Dr Fielder suggests pregnant women contact organisations such as the Mothersafe helpline. "It is a great free resource, and experienced staff are available to advise you about the safety of medication," she says.

(Motherdafe is a free service for women in NSW; find drug information hotlines in other states and territories here.)

Crucially, Dr Fielder notes that pregnant women who suspect that they have an infection, such as a UTI, should see their GP immediately.

"UTIs, chest infections or other infections can cause harm to the baby," she says.

"Pregnant women should not avoid seeing their family doctor when they are unwell." 

Find fact sheets on common medications and their safety in pregnancy and when breastfeeding on the Mothersafe website