How Addictive Substances Affect Reproductive Health

This article provides some basic information about how certain drugs may be affecting your reproductive health.  If you have questions about how a specific drug is affecting or could affect you, you should speak with your doctor.

How do addictive substances affect men’s reproductive health?

Studies have shown that marijuana use can decrease sperm count and make it difficult for the sperm and egg to combine, which leads to fertility problems.  Marijuana has also been linked to testicular and other cancers (Read Marijuana Abuse and Testicular Cancer: Recent Findings).  Heroin and methadone have been shown to lead to poor sperm mobility as well as abnormally formed sperm and low ejaculation volume.  Ecstasy and opiates like heroin can decrease libido, and many other narcotics can cause erectile dysfunction.  Finally, binge drinkers and alcoholics may have decreased sperm count and difficulty maintaining or even achieving an erection.

How do addictive substances affect women’s reproductive health?

Both cocaine and cocaine withdrawal may impact a woman’s period in one or more of the following ways: missed periods, periods without eggs being released from the ovaries, or other abnormalities. Some research suggests that use of meth can lengthen the duration of menstruation and increase the intensity of cramping, but this is inconclusive.  Importantly, meth is associated with decreased appetite, which could lead to weight loss and, in turn, missed periods. Likewise, steroid use can lead to cessation of menses (Read Athletes With an Edge: How Far Is Too Far?). Remember, although many of these substances may make it difficult to get pregnant (i.e., cause problems with fertility), none of them should be considered a form of birth control; it is always possible to get pregnant while taking these drugs.

How do addictive substances affect pregnancy?

Pregnancy is a crucial developmental period for the fetus. Most research on how any type of medication or substance affects fetal growth and development is retrospective; in other words, because it is unethical to ask a pregnant woman to take a substance that could potentially harm her baby, studies on the effects of substances in utero usually ask mothers to recall (after pregnancy) substances that they ingested voluntarily or accidentally while pregnant.  Still, enough women have lost the struggle with addiction during this period to have a general sense of how many illicit substances affect the unborn child (Read Pregnancy and Substance Use: A Dangerous Combination and Alcohol and Pregnancy: A Risky Gamble).  Alcohol use, in particular, can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which can lead to physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in a child.  Other substances, many of which can cross the placenta, can cause premature birth, miscarriage, birth defects, low birth weight, brain damage, problems with muscle control and other serious issues.  Babies whose mothers were addicted to opiates will go through withdrawal after birth, and this experience can range from unpleasant to potentially dangerous if not carefully observed by doctors.

How do addictive substances affect breastfeeding?

Alcohol remains in breast milk for as long as it takes the nursing mother’s body to metabolize it.  Because alcohol can be transferred to the baby, many women choose to “pump and dump” while others purchase strips to test for the presence of alcohol in pumped milk. Although, in some cultures, women are encouraged to drink alcohol (sometimes beer in particular) to promote lactation, a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that the exact opposite is true: that alcohol may decrease milk production. Little is known about safe intervals for feeding breast milk to infants following use of most illicit substances, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services discourages women who have relapsed or taken substances recreationally to continue breastfeeding for this reason.

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