Doctors and addiction specialists across the Tampa Bay area long have said they are seeing more babies born hooked on the prescription narcotics their mothers took during pregnancy.
Now the state is quantifying the crisis: In the first half of 2010, 635 babies born in Florida hospitals were treated for drug-withdrawal syndrome. That puts the state on track to exceed 2009's nearly 1,000 cases, according to Agency for Health Care Administration records. From 2006 to 2009, reports of babies born hooked climbed 173 percent.
The records don't specify which narcotics those babies tested positive for, but doctors around the state say most withdrawal cases involve prescription drugs.
"My guess is that the actual number of babies born exposed to drugs is even higher," said Dr. Terri Ashmeade, medical director of Tampa General Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida.
The state report only captures babies who develop symptoms right after birth, when they're still in hospitals. Others might not be diagnosed until they return home, or not at all, she said.
Mothers are more aware of the dangers of narcotics during pregnancy, but "many are surprised by the intensity of the symptoms and how long it takes to get better."
Nonstop crying, as in severe colic, is among the markers of withdrawal. Some babies have "such intense diarrhea, the skin on their bottoms is essentially burned," Ashmeade said. Some need special formula because they can't gain weight. Constant tremors are also common. And withdrawal can take weeks or even months.
"It's all of the symptoms you see in the movies about drug addiction and withdrawal, only it's babies," she said.
Janet Colbert, a founding member of STOPP Now (Stop the Organized Pill Pushers), said she sees the impact of prescription drugs at the Broward County hospital where she works in the neonatal intensive care unit.
"I kept seeing the torture these babies are going through," Colbert said. "This one baby, he couldn't even feed. He was screaming — his face was just quivering so badly he couldn't even get his face around the nipple to feed."
Doctors say that as bad as withdrawal symptoms are, an expectant mother who is addicted to narcotics should never quit suddenly. Instead, she should be treated with methadone to avoid sudden withdrawal that can lead to miscarriage. Methadone also can lead to withdrawal symptoms, but they're treatable.
Possible long-term effects are not yet known, and that worries experts like Ashmeade, who wonders what will happen when these babies start school.
"Five years down the line, if there are (learning) deficits, we've missed an opportunity to intervene. I'm hoping that's the next step, that people will try to follow these babies to see if there are long-term effects."
Plus, she noted, resources are scarce to help the mothers.
Officials say the increase in drug-dependent newborns is further evidence of Florida's — and the nation's — growing use of prescription drugs.
From October 2008 to March 2009, 49 of the nation's top 50 dispensing doctors of oxycodone were in Florida, a grand jury reported. According to one national study, the use of prescription pain medication increased 400 percent from 1998 to 2008.
Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.