Fetal exposure to opioids may change a baby’s immune system, triggering a rise in risks for eczema and asthma through early childhood, new research shows.
Children born to women who used opioids during pregnancy had much higher rates of eczema, as well as conditions such as “diaper rash,” during infancy, Australian researchers report.
These children also went on to have significantly higher odds for asthma and eczema by the age of 5.
The findings echo those seen in prior animal studies and suggest that “prenatal opioid exposure may have a long-term impact on the immune system and child health,” the researchers said.
As Kelty’s team relate, rodent studies have already shown that fetal exposure to opioids “may result in immune priming, such that the immune system overreacts to subsequent and later immune activation.”
The new study focused on data on outcomes for more than 400,000 children born in Western Australia between 2003 and 2018. Of those births, 1,656 children were diagnosed as having been exposed to opioids in the womb.
Crunching the numbers, Kelty’s team found that short-term (just after delivery) risks for eczema and dermatitis (issues such as diaper rash) soared for babies exposed to opioids.
The risk for eczema/dermatitis in these infants rose almost 12-fold among these infants compared to unexposed babies.
That increase in risk did subside as children aged, but remained high.
For example, children who’d been prenatally exposed to opioids were still 47% more likely to develop eczema or dermatitis by the age of 5, compared to kids without such exposures.
The authors stressed that this effect was observed solely among children whose moms had received opioids in conjunction with an opioid use disorder, not to help ease pain.
Asthma risks also rose in kids exposed to opioids in utero: These children had 44% higher odds of developing the respiratory disorder by age 5, compared to unexposed children.
The study found no link between exposure to opioids in the womb and the risk for other autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
However, Kelty’s team noted that “these conditions are rare and are commonly diagnosed later in childhood,” so definite conclusions can’t be drawn from this study.
All of these findings highlight “the importance of further study of opioid-induced immune changes during pregnancy [and] the potential impact on long-term health in exposed children,” the authors wrote.
Find out more about the use of opioids during pregnancy at the March of Dimes.
SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, Jan. 17, 2024
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