Sara Mervis says herself she’s "a huge Advil person," acknowledging a bum shoulder she often abuses. She also has bad allergies and, as a result, is also "huge on Tylenol."
Like many people, she’s grown accustomed to treating her symptoms—for these and other minor medical issues—with over-the-counter drugs.
But at the end of last August, when Mervis learned she was pregnant with her first child, the Evanston mom-to-be immediately stopped taking anything and everything and hurried to consult her doctor.
"Suddenly I was totally nervous about taking anything. I literally did not want to take a thing. I’ve never had a sip of caffeine or alcohol [since finding out I was pregnant] either," says Mervis, who’s due at the end of April.
Mervis’ nerves are understandable, especially for a first-time mother. In fact, most pregnant women scrutinize medical Web sites and pharmacy shelves, worrying over how to best protect their babies while also caring for themselves.
But as many physicians will tell you, the best way to know for certain is simply to ask. There are a number of OTCs that carry weighty risks for fetuses and their pregnant mothers.
"We recommend steering clear of all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), that is, drugs like ibuprofen, Aleve or aspirin," says Dr. Virgil Reid, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and head of obstetrics and gynecology at Erie Family Health Center in Chicago.
"Early in pregnancy these drugs can cause damage to the fetal kidneys," he explains. "Later, they can decrease amniotic fluid volume and cause a problem related to the fetal heart."
He advises it’s best for everyone involved if you run any drugs by your doctor. In fact, for some women, a drug that’s fine for some will not be safe for them. For example, "some people use Sudafed in pregnancy, [but] this should be avoided in patients with hypertension," says Reid.
But there are also a number of OTCs that are safe for both mom and baby.
Among these, Reid lists Tylenol, Robitussin, Tavist-D, Chloraseptic and throat lozenges.
Pregnant women ask for advice all the time, he says. "I usually tell them the [aforementioned] drugs are safe and that they should call for any others."
For some women, that’s all they need to know. But for others, it’s more assuring to go the better-safe-than-sorry route.
"My doctor said all of my allergy meds were fine, but I stopped anyways," Mervis says. "My doctor recommended only Tylenol when necessary and Sudafed if needed for sinus problems. I knew some meds were OK during pregnancy, but none by name."
Mervis also brought all of her beauty supplies—face creams, shampoo, lotions, etc.—to her doctor to get the OK to use them. She stopped, per her doctor’s orders, using Clearasil and other acne medications that contained salicylic acid.
"I guess stuff with benzoil peroxide is OK though, but I never went that route," she says.
For Mervis, even the discomforts of regular allergy symptoms and frequent soreness of old injuries don’t inspire a trip to the medicine cabinet. In fact, in the first six months of her pregnancy, she’s only taken Tylenol twice for "major headaches."
"My husband worries I am sacrificing my health at times," she says. "It’s not because of anything my doctor said, more a self-doing. Too much advice from too many people who ‘know better’ and my own over-cautious tendencies," she says.
According to Reid, although there are safe medications to take during pregnancy, women should not assume anything is benign on their own.
Ultimately, he says you should always, "ask your doctor before taking anything at all."
Maayan S. Heller recently moved to Chicago from Boston, Mass. She is a freelance writer who covers issues in health, women’s health and fitness.
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