Why You Should Think Before Taking Antibiotics While Pregnant

A new study details guidelines for women considering antibiotics while pregnant—as well as what the possible dangers are, especially during the third trimester.

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We all know that when you're pregnant, it's incredibly important to fully research the effects any medications can have on the health of your baby—but when it comes to taking antibiotics during pregnancy, it's not so cut and dried.

A recent study by the European Lung Foundation finds that antibiotic use during the third trimester of pregnancy could increase your baby's chances of developing a childhood wheeze—but scientists aren't exactly sure why.

"In recent years, prenatal and early life exposure to several common medicines, such as [acetaminophen] and antibiotics have been linked to asthma-like conditions in children. These exposures during early life are most likely explained by reverse causation, i.e. patients with asthmatic symptoms may receive antibiotics or paracetamol more frequently, either by misprescription or for treatment of comorbidities," explains Maja Popovic, Ph.D., lead author of the study. "It was unclear whether already reported positive associations between exposure to antibiotics in utero and asthmatic symptoms reflect the true relationship or whether some other factors such as maternal infections might underlie this association."

Avoiding antibiotics

But while the researchers saw a link between antibiotic use and childhood wheeze during the final three months of pregnancy, the results were different during the early phase of pregnancy. "The results found no evidence of an association between antibiotic exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy and wheezing in childhood as any association identified was explained by confounding factors," a release for the study read.

Still, Dr. Popovic encouraged all patients—pregnant or otherwise—to really weigh up their options when it comes to antibiotic use during pregnancy. "We have shown that antibiotic use in the first trimester of pregnancy is not associated with asthmatic symptoms in children but it is essential to recognize that antibiotics over-prescription represents one of the major public health problems and health professionals, as well as pregnant women should avoid using antibiotics for conditions that are likely to get better by themselves, such as common cold and viral infections. In this case alternative options to antibiotics, it appropriate, should be considered," Dr. Popovic said. "One of the limitations of our study was an incomplete information on the antibiotic use in the second trimester of pregnancy and unfortunately we could not address this association."

When it's OK to take them

That's not to say that antibiotic use during pregnancy is strictly forbidden. "Our findings should not discourage antibiotic use when there is a real medical indication," Dr. Popovic clarified. "At this point it is important to remind ourselves that when antibiotics are really needed they do more good than harm and they should be prescribed for pregnant women even in the third trimester if appropriate indication exists. However, they should be used for the shortest effective duration."

Ultimately there's no simple answer when it comes to whether or not you should take antibiotics while pregnant—like most questions that arise during pregnancy, it comes down to whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks, which could potentially include the risk of your child developing asthma if the wheezing continues into childhood. At this point, we'll still have to wait for more conclusive results.