Can prescription drugs result in birth defects?

Diana K. Blythe, MD
Only some prescription drugs can result in birth defects, many are safe. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, make sure that any doctor who prescribes you medication knows of your potential condition.
Many prescription drugs do an excellent job of treating the condition they're supposed to treat, but also can interfere with fetal development, which can cause birth defects. These medications are known as teratogenic drugs.

One of the most infamous teratogenic drugs of all time was Thalidomide, which was first synthesized in Germany during the 1950s. The drug was prescribed as anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid to thousands of pregnant women in nearly 50 countries.

The drug was not approved for use in the United States.

It was never proven safe for pregnant women and, between 1956 and 1962, nearly 10,000 women who took the drug gave birth to babies with a medical condition known as phocomelia. The children were born with missing or extremely short limbs, which caused them to be referred to as "flipper babies."

Thalidomide was taken off the market and practices for testing and approving drugs became more stringent.

Surviving victims of Thalidomide received compensation from the drug's manufacturer, Grunenthal, but are now seeking additional compensation from both Grunenthal and the German government.

The drug recently returned to the market, with strict controls, for the treatment of multiple myeloma, which is a kind of cancer and also for treatment of a particular type of leprosy lesion.

Another drug, Accutane which is used to treat severe acne, also can cause phocomelia. Because of this potential, who are taking the drug must commit to a strict regimen so that they will not become pregnant while they are taking Accutane. This regimen includes certifying that they will use two methods of birth control, as well as having an emergency backup. They also must have their blood drawn monthly to make sure they are not pregnant before receiving a prescription refill. They also agree not to donate blood to eliminate the potential for the drug to be passed on to other women.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.