CHICAGO — Researchers studying antibiotics in pregnancy have found a surprising link between common drugs used to treat urinary infections and birth defects. Reassuringly, the most-used antibiotics in early pregnancy — penicillins — appear to be the safest.
Bacterial infections themselves can cause problems for the fetus if left unchecked, experts said, so pregnant women shouldn't avoid antibiotics entirely. Instead, women should discuss antibiotics choices with their doctors.
The new study is the first large analysis of antibiotic use in pregnancy. It found that mothers of babies with birth defects were more likely than mothers with healthy babies to report taking two types of antibiotics during pregnancy: sulfa drugs (brand names include Thiosulfil Forte and Bactrim) and urinary germicides called nitrofurantoins (brand names include Furadantin and Macrobid).
It was the first time an association was seen between urinary tract treatments and birth defects, said lead author Krista Crider, a geneticist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which funded the research.
Used for many decades, the antibiotics in question predate the Food and Drug Administration and its requirements for rigorous safety testing.
Sulfa drugs are the oldest antibiotics, and some animal studies have found harm during pregnancy. Nitrofurantoins previously have been viewed by doctors as safe to treat urinary tract infections during pregnancy.
The study, appearing in November's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, may cause doctors to change the drugs they choose to treat pregnant women with infections.
It's unclear whether the birth defects were caused by the drugs or by the underlying infections being treated, Crider said.
Birth defects linked to sulfa drugs included rare brain and heart problems and shortened limbs. Those linked to nitrofurantoins (ny-troh-fyoor-AN'-toyns) included heart problems and cleft palate. The drugs seemed to double or triple the risk, depending on the defect.
"These defects are rare. Even with a threefold increase in risk, the risk for the individual is still quite low," Crider said.
Crider said the findings give doctors another opportunity to caution against overuse of antibiotics. Viral illnesses like colds and flus shouldn't be treated with antibiotics, she said.