Better beginnings for opioid babies

Common antinausea drug could reduce neonatal opioid withdrawal symptoms

Excessive crying, irritability, tremors, and trouble sleeping and eating are common symptoms of opioid withdrawal for newborns.

“If you’re a baby born to a mother who takes opiates, which unfortunately is very common, you have a 50% to 75% chance of going into withdrawal,” said Gary Peltz, MD, PhD, Stanford School of Medicine professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “It’s an awful way to begin life.”

A new clinical trial has found that a commonly used anti-nausea drug, ondansetron, could reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms if given to the mother during labor and to the newborn for five days after birth.

“It’s the first attempt to do something that could prevent this withdrawal syndrome from occurring in at-risk infants,” said Peltz, co-lead author of the study published in August 2022 in the Journal of Perinatology. “All of the current efforts involve trying to give the baby a different type of opiate or a different duration of treatment.”

Babies receiving ondansetron had symptom scores that were 20% lower than did babies receiving a placebo — enough for many to avoid treatment with opioids.

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Nina Bai

Nina Bai is a science writer in the Stanford Medicine Office of Communications.

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