Medications That Are Safe to Use During Pregnancy—and Which to Avoid
Navigating the changes in your body during pregnancy can be tricky enough, never mind having to start thinking for two. This becomes especially worrisome when it comes to medications while pregnant. That said, taking meds during pregnancy is extremely common: almost 80% of pregnant women will take some form of medication, according to a 2014 study in the journal BMJ Open. But how do you know what’s safe for you and your growing baby during these crucial nine months, and which pill bottles to leave untouched?
To help ease some of that burden, we’ve created a list of common over-the-counter (OTC) medications that are safe to take during pregnancy in the event you should you need some relief.
A Word of Caution on Medication During Pregnancy
First thing's first: You should stop and ask your doctor or nurse on call for help or advice before taking any medication when you’re pregnant, particularly in the first trimester when the risks to your baby is greatest. Make this your new medication mantra: When in doubt, call your doctor!
And if you have chronic condition that requires you to take medications, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or multiple sclerosis (MS), it's important to talk to your doctor about whether those drugs are safe to continue taking during pregnancy. And the sooner you have this conversation, the better—ideally, before you even try to conceive.
Heartburn and Gas Medications
Talk about uncomfortable truths: Between 17-45% of pregnant women will suffer from heartburn in pregnancy. Thankfully, many drugs for heartburn are safe over-the-counter options to take during pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Here are a few:
- Tums (calcium carbonate)
- Pepcid AC (famotidine)
- Mylanta (calcium carbonate/magnesium carbonate)
- Maalox (aluminum hydroxide/magnesium hydroxide)
Nausea and Vomiting Medications
Worried about how to treat morning sickness (which can actually happen at any time of day!) during pregnancy? Thankfully, there are options for you over the counter. You can take Unisom (doxylamine) or vitamin B6 (pyridoxin) for this purpose, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
You can also try sucking on ginger candies, and eating small, frequent meals with bland foods that won’t trigger more nausea (try the BRAT diet—bananas, rice, apples, and tea), says the AAFP.
Cough and Cold Medications
If you're plagued with the dreaded common cold, these over-the-counter cold meds are all safe to take, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
- Robitussin (dextromethorphan)
- Mucinex (plain) (guaifenesin)
- Vicks Vapor Rub mentholated cream
- Sudafed (pseudoephedrine): Only after the first trimester
- Cough drops (Mentholated or non-mentholated)
- Tylenol (acetaminophen)
- Saline nasal drops or spray
However, you should avoid taking any “sustained action” or “multi-symptom” forms of these drugs, says the Cleveland Clinic. Also don’t take drugs like Nyquil with high alcohol content.
Medications for Aches, Pains, and Fever
Tylenol (acetaminophen) is used by up to 70% of pregnant women in the US. It is used to treat fever, aches and pains, and general pain. Some recent studies have indicated that long-term use during pregnancy could be linked to ADHD, but short-term use is considered safe. So if you have a headache, don’t worry about reaching for the Tylenol bottle.
On the other hand, you should generally avoid taking Advil (ibuprofen) and aspirin, especially in the third trimester, because of bleeding risks, according to the AAFP.
If you're pregnant and suffer from allergies, have no fear: Common OTC allergy medications, like Claritin (Loratidine), Zyrtec (Cetirizine), and Benadryl (diphenhydramine), are safe to take. About 10-15% of pregnant women take antihistamines for allergies in pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so you’re certainly not alone.
Sleeping comfortably while pregnant seems like a pipe dream for many. Unfortunately, getting a good night's sleep may become difficult as your belly grows, leading to nights of insomnia. In fact, somewhere between 66% and 94% of pregnant women have trouble sleeping. Luckily, Benadryl and Unisom SleepGels (diphenhydramine) are safe OTC medications to help you get to sleep a little easier.
Experiencing a bout of diarrhea is no fun, especially during pregnancy. But Imodium (loperamide) is generally safe to take during pregnancy after the first trimester—as long as you don’t take it for more than 24 hours, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Thankfully, most diarrhea cases clear up on their own within a day or two. Make sure you also drink lots of fluids, like water or juice, to stay hydrated. But if you find yourself stuck on the toilet for days on end and becoming seriously dehydrated, make sure to get to the doctor ASAP to prevent serious issues, says the American Pregnancy Association.
OTC Medications to Avoid During Pregnancy
While certainly not exhaustive, here is a list of common OTC medications you should generally avoid taking during your pregnancy:
- Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen)
- Aleve (naproxen)
- Excedrin Migraine (contains aspirin)
These are all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications, which are best avoided during pregnancy and especially during the third trimester due to bleeding risk, per the AAFP.
You should also avoid Pepto Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) in pregnancy because it is part of a group of drugs known to have an effect on bleeding, says the AAFP.
Again, this is not a complete list. Speak with your doctor before taking any new OTC meds.
Medication Changes During Pregnancy
Once you’ve figured out you are pregnant, you may find that your pregnancy health care team wants to make some changes to your medications. For example, they may taper you off a certain medication to prevent an adverse reaction; change your medication to a pregnancy-safe version or less risky version; or even ramp up a medication to try to prevent a pregnancy complication. This is especially important if you’re currently being treated for a chronic illness like inflammatory bowel disease or rheumatoid arthritis. As soon as you find out you’re pregnant, head to the doctor to chat about your medications and other important prenatal care.
More Helpful Resources
Your top resource for questions about medication during pregnancy? Your doctor, on-call nurses at your doctor’s office, and the rest of your health care team. Talking to your pharmacist is also a good idea.
Reliable online resources can be helpful. For example, Mother to Baby, from the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists, offers handy fact sheets about medications during pregnancy, known medication risks, and even an online chat (in English and Spanish) that can connect you with an expert to answer questions in a pinch.