Be Medicinewise Week 2015: Stop and think about medicines during pregnancy and breastfeeding

During this year’s annual Be Medicinewise Week, Australians are encouraged to ‘be medicinewise at all ages and life stages’. The focus for the first day of the campaign is pregnancy and breastfeeding—a life stage where it is extremely important to be aware of the safe and appropriate use of medicines.

In a recent survey of Australian women who were pregnant or had a child 11 years or younger:

  1. 33% said they had taken prescription medicine during their pregnancy
  2. 33% said they had taken over-the-counter medicine during their pregnancy.

Calls about using medicines during pregnancy and breastfeeding are some of the most common fielded by the NPS Medicines Lines’ pharmacists. The most regular queries from women during pregnancy are about cold and flu medicines, hayfever medicines and antidepressants. The top queries from breastfeeding women are about using hayfever medicines, cough and cold medicines and medicines for pain and fever.

Dr Jeannie Yoo, NPS MedicineWise Clinical Adviser says, “Be MedicineWise Week is a reminder for pregnant and breastfeeding women to ask the right questions and weigh up the risks and benefits before taking medicines. It’s a time in your life when you need to stop and think about what medicine you’re taking, why you’re taking it, and to seek the right advice.

“There are times during pregnancy when using a medicine is optional. For example, if you get a head cold or a sore throat you may decide to manage the symptoms without taking a medicine. At other times, it may be essential to continue using a medicine: such as when it helps to manage a long term condition like asthma, diabetes, depression, or seizures. Without the medicine the health of both mother and baby may be put at risk.”

Medicines can cause harm during pregnancy by being transported across the placenta and interfering with the baby’s development or by damaging the placenta and restricting the nourishment delivered to the baby.

“It’s also important to remember when you are breastfeeding that the medicines you take may pass into your breastmilk. Although many common medicines are relatively safe for breastfed babies, there are some medicines that either shouldn’t be used or need special care,” says Dr Yoo.

Examples of commonly used medicines that you need to be careful with when breastfeeding are some combination cough and cold medicines and medicines containing codeine.

It is important to ask questions about complementary medicines during pregnancy and breastfeeding too. If you are planning pregnancy, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, remember that many complementary medicines have not undergone the same level of research as prescription and over-the-counter medicines, so often less is known about their effectiveness, possible side effects and interactions (both overall and during pregnancy and breastfeeding).

Although some vitamins and complementary products are designed especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women, other medicines that you can buy from a supermarket, pharmacy, health food store or online may not be safe. So always ask for guidance from your health professionals.

Women at this life stage should always carefully read the packaging, labels and information that come with their medicine as well as ask questions about their medicines to their medical practitioner and pharmacist.

Further information is available in the Be Medicinewise Week fact sheets ‘Be Medicinewise during pregnancy’ and ‘Be Medicinewise when breastfeeding’. Be Medicinewise Week runs from 12 to 18 October, find out more at the campaign website page

For more information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, 'natural', vitamins and minerals) from a health professional, call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) . Hours of operation are Monday–Friday 9am–5pm AEDT (excluding public holidays).

*Online survey of pregnant women and women who had children 11 years or younger undertaken by Galaxy Research for NPS MedicineWise, 17-20 September, 2015.


Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS MedicineWise enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests. We receive funding by the Australian Government Department of Health.

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