Hydroxychloroquine early in pregnancy and risk of birth defects

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2021 Mar;224(3):290.e1-290.e22. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2020.09.007. Epub 2020 Sep 19.


Background: Hydroxychloroquine is generally considered safe in pregnancy for the treatment of rheumatic conditions, but studies have been too small to evaluate teratogenicity. Quantifying the risk of congenital malformations associated with early pregnancy exposure to hydroxychloroquine is important in both the context of its ongoing use for rheumatological disorders and its potential future use for coronavirus disease 2019 prophylaxis, for which a number of clinical trials are ongoing despite initial trials for coronavirus disease 2019 treatment having been negative.

Objective: The study objective was to evaluate the risk of major congenital malformations associated with exposure to hydroxychloroquine during the first trimester of pregnancy, the period of organogenesis.

Study design: We performed a population-based cohort study nested in the Medicaid Analytic eXtract (MAX, 2000-2014) and IBM MarketScan Research Database (MarketScan, 2003-2015). The source cohort included 2045 hydroxychloroquine-exposed pregnancies and 3,198,589 pregnancies not exposed to hydroxychloroquine continuously enrolled in their respective insurance program for 3 months before the last menstrual period through at least 1 month after delivery; infants were enrolled for at least 3 months after birth. We compared the risk of congenital malformations in women using hydroxychloroquine during the first trimester of pregnancy with that of those not using hydroxychloroquine, restricting the cohort to women with rheumatic disorders and using propensity score matching to control for indication, demographics, medical comorbidities, and concomitant medications (1867 hydroxychloroquine-exposed pregnancies and 19,080 pregnancies not exposed to hydroxychloroquine). The outcomes considered included major congenital malformations diagnosed during the first 90 days after delivery and specific malformation types for which there were at least 5 exposed events: oral cleft, cardiac, respiratory, gastrointestinal, genital, urinary, musculoskeletal, and limb defects.

Results: Overall, 54.8 per 1000 infants exposed to hydroxychloroquine were born with a major congenital malformation versus 35.3 per 1000 unexposed infants, corresponding to an unadjusted relative risk of 1.51 (95% confidence interval, 1.27-1.81). Patient characteristics were balanced in the restricted, propensity score-matched cohort. The adjusted relative risk was 1.26 (95% confidence interval, 1.04-1.54); it was 1.33 (95% confidence interval, 1.08-1.65) for a daily dose of ≥400 mg and 0.95 (95% confidence interval, 0.60-1.50) for a daily dose of <400 mg. Among the different malformation groups considered, more substantial increases in the risk of oral clefts, respiratory anomalies, and urinary defects were observed, although estimates were imprecise. No pattern of malformation was identified.

Conclusion: Our findings suggest a small increase in the risk of malformations associated with first-trimester hydroxychloroquine use. For most patients with autoimmune rheumatic disorders, the benefits of treatment during pregnancy will likely outweigh this risk. If hydroxychloroquine were shown to be effective for coronavirus disease 2019 prophylaxis in ongoing trials, the risk of malformations would need to be balanced against such benefits.

Keywords: coronavirus disease 2019; hydroxychloroquine; malformations; pregnancy; rheumatic disorders; systemic lupus erythematosus.

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced / etiology*
  • Adult
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydroxychloroquine / adverse effects*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / drug therapy*
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Hydroxychloroquine