Zoloft Birth Defects
Zoloft, a popular prescription medicine used to treat depression, has been linked to many serious, and even deadly, birth defects. Manufactured by Pfizer, Zoloft is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a class of drugs that easily pass through the mother's placenta and affect the growing baby. Although Zoloft may do an admirable job of treating depression, its effects on a fetus should give a woman pause if she is planning to become pregnant or already is expecting a child.
Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate
Studies have found that when women take SSRIs, such as Zoloft, during the early part of their pregnancies, there is an increased risk for facial malformations. Two of these defects occur when parts of the head do not fuse properly.
A cleft lip (cheiloschisis) is the gap left when a fetus's upper lip does not fully join together. A cleft lip can extend from the lip to the nose, which affects speech and language development. A cleft palate (palatsochisis) happens when the baby's roof of the mouth does not close. This also can delay speech, as well as cause feeding, breathing and hearing problems and infections.
Typically, cleft birth defects are not discovered until after a baby is born, and correcting the deformities can take many surgeries.
Another type of serious birth defect that has been linked to use of SSRIs in the first trimester of pregnancy affects the baby's abdominal organs. Gastroschisis occurs when the abdominal wall does not close, which produces a hole, or hernia, that allows the intestines and other organs to protrude outside the body. When the organs extending outside the body are covered by a thin membrane, the condition is called omphalocele.
According to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, these two abdominal defects were 2.8 times more likely to occur in babies of mothers who ingested an SSRI, such as Zoloft, during early pregnancy.
Gastroschisis and omphalocele are most often diagnosed when the baby is in utero because the defects are easy to spot on routine ultrasounds. Treating the dual conditions is more difficult because complications usually make a single corrective surgery impossible.
Critical heart defects also have been linked to the use of Zoloft during pregnancy.
In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Public Health Advisory to warn about the increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN) for women taking SSRIs during pregnancy. PPHN can be especially scary because it affects the newborn's heart and lungs and is not often detected until after birth.
In 2009, the British Journal of Medicine reported that a study found that women who take SSRIs during pregnancy are four times more likely to have their babies born with heart defects. Atrial septal defects (ASD) and ventricular septal defects (VSD) are holes in the chambers of the heart that affect the circulation of blood, pushing the heart to work harder.
Other Side Effects of Zoloft
Furthermore, babies born to mothers who have taken Zoloft and other SSRIs are at a higher risk for devastating neural tube defects. Anencephaly is characterized by the lack of a large part of the forebrain that controls higher-level thinking. This occurs when the top of the neural tube doesn't close during the baby's early development. Tragically, anencephaly is fatal, and babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth. The previously mentioned New England Journal of Medicine study found that anencephaly occurred 2.4 times more often when SSRIs were taken during the first trimester.
The use of Zoloft during pregnancy also has been linked to Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) in premature newborns. SSRIs have been shown to increase the risk of early deliveries -- when the baby's lungs are not fully developed -- thereby raising the risk of RDS. RDS requires doctors to carefully increase the affected baby's oxygen levels until his or her lungs develop.
With the many serious and potentially deadly birth defects that researchers have linked to the use of Zoloft, pregnant women should question the use of this and other SSRIs.