Women who take angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to treat high blood pressure in the first trimester of their pregnancies are at no greater risk of having babies with birth defects than are women who take other types of high blood pressure medication or who take no blood pressure drugs, according to a new study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The study suggests that the underlying high blood pressure itself may increase the risk of birth defects, rather than blood pressure medications taken during the first trimester of pregnancy.
ACE inhibitors are among the most widely prescribed drugs used to treat high blood pressure, particularly for people who also have diabetes. ACE inhibitors are known to raise the rate of birth defects in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, and one earlier study reported a link between the use of ACE inhibitors and birth defects in the first trimester of pregnancy. But the new AHRQ report, based on a study of a larger population, did not find a unique link between first-trimester ACE inhibitor use and birth defects.
Results of the study, prepared for AHRQ's Effective Health Care Program by the HMO Research Network—a member of AHRQ's Developing Evidence to Improve Decisions about Effectiveness (DEcIDE) Network—are published in the October 18 issue of BMJ.
"Some women of child-bearing age have high blood pressure, and about half of them will get pregnant while taking one or more medications to treat it," said AHRQ Director Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. "This report should lead to more informed discussions by women, in consultation with their doctors, about the best way to manage their high blood pressure, particularly if they become pregnant."
ACE inhibitors are also used to treat heart failure and to protect some people from diabetes complications. Yet because they work by inhibiting an enzyme in the kidney, physicians counsel caution in taking them in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, a crucial period of development for the unborn baby. ACE inhibitors carry a "black box" warning from the Food and Drug Administration—that agency's strongest warning—against their use in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.