By Beth Weinhouse
In an ideal world, all pregnancies would be planned and women would
know they were pregnant the instant egg met sperm. The real world is
much more complicated, however, and many women are surprised to
discover they are pregnant, even if they and their partners have been
trying to conceive. Many women, when their pregnancy is detected, worry
that something they did or ate or drank before realizing their
condition might jeopardize their unborn child. While these concerns are
quite common, experts say that most that occur before your second
missed period, which would make you 8 weeks pregnant, are unfounded.
estimate that while there's about a 4 percent risk of birth defects in
any pregnancy, only about 6 percent of these are related to anything in
the environment -- meaning anything a woman took, did, or was exposed
to. The vast majority of birth defects have a genetic origin.
a quick guide to some common early pregnancy exposures that shouldn't
worry you... and a warning about a few that should. Pregnant women
should always discuss their concerns with their obstetricians, of
course. And women worried about specific exposures can contact the
Organization of Teratology (birth defects) Information Services (OTIS)
at 888-285-3410, for referral to a local
teratology information center.
- Alcohol While women will no doubt be advised to abstain from
alcohol during pregnancy, there is little danger from occasional social
drinking early in pregnancy. "Alcohol in large quantities -- binge
drinking -- is more of a risk later in pregnancy," says Lynn Martinez,
program manager of the Teratology and Birth Defects Program of the Utah
Department of Health. "A glass of wine or even two early in pregnancy
is unlikely to cause a problem."
- Birth control pills Some women become pregnant while
taking oral contraceptives, usually because of missed pills or
antibiotic medication which can lower the effectiveness of the Pill.
These women may continue taking the Pill daily for weeks, not realizing
they are pregnant. "If a woman stops taking oral contraceptives before
the eighth week of pregnancy ,there's no known increase in birth
defects," says Lori Wolfe, M.S., director of the Texas Teratogen
Information Service. "But between the eighth and tenth week there's a
small -- 1 percent or less -- risk of external genital abnormalities if
the fetus is a girl." The spermicides used with diaphragms and condoms
are not considered a risk.
- Chemicals (hair dyes, insect repellent, mothballs, nail polish remover, paint fumes)
"In the absence of maternal poisoning we don't see a problem with the
baby," says Martinez. In other words, if you don't get sick from the
exposure, your baby won't, either. Common sense dictates avoiding fumes
and other potentially hazardous chemicals while pregnant, but if you
just finished painting your bedroom before finding out you were
- Cigarettes The advice here is simply to quit as soon as
you know you're pregnant. "Cigarettes are associated with low
birthweight, which is a late pregnancy issue," says Martinez. "And
smoking is even a bigger problem after the baby is born, since lung
development goes on for eight years. Fortunately people have a high
success rate quitting during early pregnancy."
- Hot tubs and saunas While there's evidence that a high
fever -- more than 101 degrees Fahrenheit -- that lasts longer than 24
hours can sometimes induce spinal birth defects, no research has linked
saunas and hot tubs with a greater risk. Again, common sense advocates
avoiding these things once you know you're pregnant. But there's no
reason to panic over a soak in the Jacuzzi.
- Medications Common medications such as over-the-counter
pain relievers, allergy and cold medicines, cough suppressants,
antacids, etc. do not pose a real threat early in pregnancy when taken
occasionally. Once a pregnancy is diagnosed, obstetricians will advise
women as to which drugs are known to be safe during pregnancy and which
to avoid. The pain relievers aspirin and ibuprofen, for instance,
should be avoided, while acetaminophen (Tylenol) is considered
- X-Rays Diagnostic X-rays,
such as dental X-rays and mammograms, are not associated with any
increased risk during pregnancy. In fact, experts say that only
high-dose (more than 5 rads) X-ray exposure directly to the abdomen --
as with radiation treatment for gynecological cancers -- could harm the
fetus. So why are pregnant women advised to avoid all X-rays during
pregnancy? "I think that's based more on legal concerns than science,"
says Martinez. "People are concerned about lawsuits."
Does that mean there's nothing you should worry about? Almost, but not
quite. Certain prescription medications (such as the acne drug
Accutane) as well as megadoses of vitamin A (more than 10,000 IU per
day -- many times more than what is in a daily multivitamin supplement)
do pose a birth defect risk. Consult your obstetrician or OTIS (above)
to find out whether any medications or vitamins you've been taking may
mean an increased risk of problems.