Background: Prescribing drugs to pregnant women requires the balancing of benefits and risks. Only a small proportion of drugs are known to be harmful to the fetus, but for the vast majority of drugs little evidence of fetal safety exists.
Aim: To determine the prescription pattern of potentially and clearly harmful prescription drugs during pregnancy with reference to drug safety categorisation, and to define the drug groups primarily responsible for multiple drug use during pregnancy.
Study design: A retrospective, register-based cohort study.
Methods: Linkage of three nationwide registers in Finland. Data collection included prescription drugs purchased during the preconception period and each trimester in the pregnant cohort, and the corresponding time periods in the non-pregnant controls. The pregnancy safety categorisation was determined for each drug (Anatomic Therapeutic Chemical [ATC] code) by using the Swedish classification of approved medicinal products (Farmaceutiska Specialiteter i Sverige [FASS]) and if not available, the corresponding Australian (Australian Drug Evaluation Committee [ADEC]) or US categorisation (FDA). GROUPS STUDIED: Women applying for maternity support (maternal grants) during the year 1999 (n = 43 470) plus non-pregnant control women matched by age and hospital district (n = 43 470).
Results: In the pregnant cohort, 20.4% of women purchased at least one drug classified as potentially harmful during pregnancy, and 3.4% purchased at least one drug classified as clearly harmful. A significant decline occurred in the number of pregnant women purchasing potentially and clearly harmful drugs during the first trimester when compared with the preconception period, and the decline continued from the first to the second trimester. In the pregnant cohort, 107 (0.2%) women purchased at least ten different drugs during pregnancy. The drugs most commonly purchased in this group were topical corticosteroids and nasal preparations.
Conclusion: The use of hazardous prescription drugs declines during pregnancy but prescriptions of known teratogens and the relatively frequent practice of polypharmacy in epilepsy place emphasis on the need for careful pre-pregnancy counselling. However, drug safety classifications give a very crude estimation of risk and should only be used as general guidelines when planning treatment. Risk assessment must always be made on an individual basis, and pregnant women with illnesses requiring treatment must be treated adequately.