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What are the Risks of Taking Dextromethorphan During Pregnancy?

By Kaitlyn N. Watkins
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Pregnancy is a time of heightened concern for what a woman puts into her body and the potential effect it might have on the baby. Women are often advised to avoid all drugs and medicines during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, to reduce the risk of birth defects. Many women deal with typical illnesses during pregnancy, however, and safe relief through doctor-prescribed medications and over-the-counter drugs can be found. Those concerned about taking dextromethorphan during pregnancy can take solace knowing that there are almost no proven risks to using the medicine.

Dextromethorphan is an antitussive that is most commonly used in over-the-counter cough and cold medications. While considered safe to use on its own, taking a drug that combines other agents, such as ethanol, with dextromethorphan during pregnancy is not recommended. It is important to check medicine labels for extra ingredients, which often are found in products designed to treat more symptoms than just a cough. Alternatively, a doctor can provide a list of safe over-the-counter medications to use during pregnancy.

While there have been few formal studies done specifically on the effects of taking dextromethorphan during pregnancy, there have been comparative studies done that included measuring birth defects that resulted from medications taken while the mother was pregnant. There were no heightened incidents of birth defects for mothers who took medicines containing dextromethorphan while pregnant. One study done in 1998 on chicken embryos found that dosages of dextromethorphan could be lethal, but it has largely been discounted for its irrelevance for human embryos and a potentially flawed experimental design. While not proven, it is thought that the agent can pass through the placenta to the fetus, but no dangerous effects have been found as a result.

It is very important that women who wish to take a product with dextromethorphan during pregnancy ensure that it does not contain ethanol, also known as alcohol, because of the known negative side effects on fetuses. Fetal alcohol syndrome has been directly connected with pregnant women who abused medications containing ethanol. Many doctors recommend abstaining from all medications during the first trimester because the potential for birth defects is highest during this time. Despite the considered safety of taking dextromethorphan while pregnant, women should consult their physicians to confirm that the drug will not negatively interact with any pre-existing conditions unique to them.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Sep 04, 2014

I don't know about the safety of using dextromethorphan after the first semester, but it's not advised for the first semester.

There is controversy about this medication, mainly because of that one study that was done on chicken embryos. Some say that its risks are unproven and can be used, while others argue that it's not safe.

By bear78 — On Sep 04, 2014

@fBoyle-- I'm not a doctor and you should speak to a medical professional before using medications.

I'm pregnant too and I personally would not take dextromethorphan because it's a class C drug. This drug category is the "risk cannot be ruled out" category. Drugs in this category were tested on animals and adverse effects were seen on the fetus. But they were not tested on humans, for obvious reasons, because of the risk that it will harm the baby.

I think most over the counter cold medications belong to this category. But your doctor may recommend a safer alternative.

By fBoyle — On Sep 03, 2014

I'm in my second trimester. Can I use dextromethorphan then? My doctor is on vacation and I'm down with a terrible cough. I want to take something to relieve my symptoms so that I can get proper. Of course, I don't want to take anything that might harm my baby.

Has anyone here used dextromethorphan during pregnancy before?

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