Medication Birth Defects

When many soon-to-be parents think about birth defects and how to avoid them, ideas about tobacco, alcohol or drug use during pregnancy or injuries and complications that occur during delivery are the first to come to mind. One aspect that often escapes notice is the range of disabilities and other forms of harm that happen when certain medications are taken at any point during the nine months before birth or even while breast-feeding an infant. Learning about these prescription drugs and how they may affect your child is vital if you want to safeguard the short- and long-term well-being of your son or daughter.

Medication Birth Defects Defined

People, even those who are pregnant, contract illnesses and experience other health conditions that cause pain, discomfort and a wide range of other serious symptoms. In order to combat these conditions, there are numerous medications that can be prescribed. However, many of these are not recommended for expectant mothers. It is her doctor’s responsibility to carefully assess which is the safest intervention. Some of the prescription drugs that have been found to lead to birth defects include the following:

  • SSRIs. Selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are frequently prescribed to treat anxiety and depression. However, a 2006 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report warned that infants exposed to certain SSRIs in utero are at higher risk of developing persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN). SSRIS found to endanger infants in this way include Lexapro, Selexa, Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, Symbyax and Fluvoxamine. Conditions that SSRIS can cause include limb abnormalities, spina bifida, cleft palate and/or lip, heart defects, neural tube defects, craniosynostosis and omphalocele.
  • Benzodiazepines. This class of drugs, commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, seizures and panic attacks, is also sometimes recommended to aid in muscle relaxation. The most often prescribed benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), oxazepam (Serax), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), triazolam (Halcion) and temazepam (Restoril). In spite of their overall effectiveness, these particular medications have been found to put babies at risk for Esophageal atresia/stenosis (difficulties in the development of the esophagus), gastroschisis (the baby’s intestines are outside the body), Atrioventricular septal defect (holes between the chambers of the heart), pulmonary valve stenosis (narrowing of this valve that impedes blood flow), cleft lip or palate, low muscle control and difficulties with breathing and temperature regulation. Because studies are still being conducted as to the impact of benzodiazepines on infants, it is important to consider your unique situation and to consult with your doctor before taking them.
  • Antibiotics. Some of the most prescribed medications in the United States, antibiotics are very effective in treating infections caused by bacteria, including pneumonia and strep throat. Although studies have found that many types of antibiotics are safe to take during pregnancy, a particular class known as macrolides may lead to higher incidences of miscarriage and birth defects that include cardiovascular malformations and defects to the gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, urinary system and genitals. This category of drugs contains erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin, among others. Other classes of antibiotics may also contribute to birth defects, including nitrofurantoins, sulfonamides and tetracyclines.
    The conditions they cause include brain and skull malformations, heart and eye defects, cleft lip and palate and difficulties with the development of teeth and bones.
  • Accutane. This form of Vitamin A is the brand name for isotretinoin and has been used to treat acne. Although isotretinoin is no longer sold in the U.S., similar formulations remain available, including Absorica, Claravis, Myorisan and Zenatane. Birth defects linked to Accutane are widespread and severe and include conditions such as cleft palate, heart defects, ear problems, eye difficulties, mikcrocephaly, and issues with the parathyroid and thymus glands.
  • Diflucan or fluconazole. These medications are often prescribed to treat yeast infections, which can be more frequent during pregnancy. Because of their potential side effects, however, they are only recommended if antifungal creams are ineffective. Taking more than 150 mg of Diflucan or continuing its use for a long time, particularly during the first trimester, can result in what the FDA describes as “a rare and distinct set of birth defects in infants.”
  • nSAIDs. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be dispensed over the counter or via prescription and are given to treat fever, pain and swelling. Common over-the-counter NSAIDs include Aspirin, Ibuprofen like Advil or Motrin, Aleve and Excedrin. Prescription types include Diclofenac, Etodolac, Lodine, Meloxicam and Daypro. Although the risks for birth defects such as limb abnormalities, neural tube defects and microphthalmia are small, it is still wise to consult with your doctor before taking them as well as discussing any safer alternatives.
  • Zofran (ondansetron) was used for many years to treat severe vomiting and nausea in patients who were pregnant, had just had surgery or were undergoing chemotherapy. Although Zofran and its numerous generic successors are effective in treating the severe symptoms of morning sickness that some women suffer, it puts mothers and their babies at risk of side effects. The infant may suffer cleft lip and palate, atrial septal defect (failure of the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart to close) and ventricular septal defect (similar to atrial septal defect but occurs in the two lower heart chambers).
  • Seizure medications. Pregnant women with epilepsy or other conditions that cause seizures find themselves in a quandary. Taking the drugs usually prescribed to control seizures (Tegretol, Depakote, Lamictal and Dilantin) can cause birth defects, while ceasing the use of these drugs can lead to miscarriage-causing seizures. Potential disabilities related to these drugs include developmental delays in speech and walking, cleft lip or palate, organ deformities, hypoplasia and craniofacial defects.


Treating physical conditions or mental illness is always an inexact science, but it is made exponentially more complex when the patient is pregnant. Doctors are duty-bound to take the pregnancy into careful consideration before recommending or dispensing any medications, particularly those that have been linked to potential deformities, delays or other types of defects in the infant.

If you believe that your doctor failed to live up to this responsibility thereby resulting in injury or death to your child, it is crucial that you speak with a law firm with specific experience in the field of birth injuries. As there may be time limits, it is important that you contact a reputable legal team as soon as possible.