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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released updated guidelines for doctors and hospitals on how they can identify and monitor infants exposed to opioids and other drugs of addiction. The group notes there has been an alarming increase in the last decade in the number of newborns who suffer through withdrawal from a variety of opioid drugs.

In some cases, prenatal exposure to drugs may occur because the mother abuses heroin or other illicit substances, or because she is receiving addiction treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. But more and more infants are being affected by exposure in the womb to prescription painkillers, the AAP notes in a news release.

“There have been pockets of the country where up to 25 percent of all NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] babies at any given time are being treated for withdrawal,” report co-author Dr. Mark Hudak of the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville told HealthDay. “The problem has percolated up and reached the attention of government and medical officials.”

Drug exposure during pregnancy can cause many problems in newborns, including drug withdrawal upon birth, the article notes. Babies can suffer irritability, tremors, seizures, vomiting and shrill crying, as well as long-term problems including birth defects, impaired growth and behavior problems.

The AAP recommends that hospital nurseries develop a system to screen mothers for drug abuse, and to confirm exposure in newborns through testing urine and meconium, the baby’s first stool.

The report notes while some infants exposed to drugs do not need treatment, others require comfort measures such as minimizing their exposure to light and sound, and swaddling and rocking. Some babies may need medication to counteract the effects of the drugs they are withdrawing from.

The revised guidelines appear in the journal Pediatrics.

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