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How Viagra is Helping Premature Babies

Premature babies can suffer a number of serious health problems.

Premature babies can suffer a number of serious health problems.

In the United States, around 450,000 babies are born prematurely every year.

That’s a rate of one in nine, and is a higher premature birth rate than in most high-income countries. Premature birth is birth that occurs at least three weeks before the baby’s due date. In the final weeks and months of pregnancy, the baby experiences important growth and development in utero. When the baby is born prematurely, those growth and development processes must take place in a non-ideal environment, outside the mother’s body.

The more premature the baby is, the greater the threat of severe or long-lasting health problems. Only a very small percentage of babies are born extremely prematurely, but they account for a large proportion of infant deaths. Depending on how developed a premature baby is, he or she may spend weeks or even months hospitalized in a neonatal ICU. Treating premature infants requires a team of specialists, and in many cases, these specialists must use unconventional approaches to help the infants grow and develop.

Without a lot of medications designed specifically for premature infants, neonatal specialists sometimes have to adapt medications from pediatric and adult versions. But caring for premature babies isn’t like caring for tiny versions of other children or adults, and medications and treatments have to be specially adapted for premature infant needs. Beyond simply providing medical treatment, premature infant care must attempt to help these tiny babies develop into healthy children. Two premature infant treatments that may surprise you are caffeine and Viagra.

How Caffeine Can Help Premature Babies

Caffeine, just like what’s in your morning cup of coffee is often used to treat premature infants that are coming off ventilators and learning to breathe on their own. Because their brains are still undergoing development, many preemies simply “forget” to breathe. But caffeine stimulates their brains to “remember” to continue breathing. Caffeine also stimulates the baby’s diaphragm and lungs. This may seem particularly odd to mothers who were told to cut out caffeine during pregnancy, but it really works, and the results are long-lasting. The better a premature infant’s lungs work short term, the better their brain health, and the better the chances of avoiding lifelong neurological problems.

Data from the NICU at nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio has shown that premature babies consistently given carefully calculated doses of caffeine live longer, and caffeine has been incorporated by the hospital’s Small Baby Program’s standard care protocol.

Pulmonary Hypertension and Sildenafil

Sildenafil is the generic name of the active ingredient in Viagra. First studied as a treatment for pain associated with a heart condition called angina, Viagra eventually became world famous as a treatment for erectile dysfunction in men. But certain properties of sildenafil make it valuable in helping premature babies.

One of the properties of sildenafil is that it relaxes blood vessels in the lungs. In fact, a name-brand drug called Revatio (in which sildenafil is the active ingredient) is used to treat a condition called primary pulmonary hypertension, which is a serious, potentially fatal lung disease. Revatio relaxes the blood vessels in the lungs lowering blood pressure there so that lungs function more efficiently, and this is the principle on which the treatment for premature babies rests.

In premature babies, Viagra (at a much smaller dose than adults take) is given to babies to help them come off a ventilator. In babies who have to stay on a ventilator, the drug allows doctors to turn ventilator settings down. This is important because babies who are not able to come off a ventilator can develop lung problems where the blood vessels in the lung are too “tight.” The result is that the right side of the heart has to pump too hard, a condition that can be fatal. By relaxing the vessels in the lungs, the right side of the heart does not have to work as hard. At Nationwide Children’s hospital, the smallest baby treated only weighed about 12 ounces – the size of a can of soda.

Viagra can actually be used to help the lungs of premature babies.

Viagra can actually be used to help the lungs of premature babies.

Treating premature infants often involves using FDA-approved drugs (like Viagra) in ways for which they are not specifically approved. Using drugs “off-label” is common in pediatrics, particularly in intensive care situations. In infants (premature or full-term) with pulmonary hypertension, Viagra has been tremendously effective, often saving lives. In babies who have pulmonary hypertension, it is a leading cause of death during the first month of life, but in some hospitals, Viagra has nearly eliminated death due to pulmonary hypertension in older babies in the ICU. However, because this treatment is relatively new, some of the long term side effects are not well known, so it’s reserved for babies who are the sickest.

One of the first cases of sildenafil being used on a premature infant was in 2007 in the UK. This baby had partial lung failure, and was not receiving enough oxygen in his bloodstream. Doctors thought that Viagra would help open up the small blood vessels in the baby’s working lung to help boost oxygen levels in his bloodstream. The treatment reportedly saved the baby’s life.

Other Non-Traditional Uses for Viagra

Viagra will always be overwhelmingly associated with treatment for erectile dysfunction, but with each passing year, new uses are found for this drug in treating problems that have nothing to do with erections. Sildenafil has been used in treating stroke patients, people with altitude sickness, heart failure patients, and is even being studied as a possible preventative measure for people with small vessel disease in the brain, a leading cause of dementia.

Conclusion

Sildenafil, the generic name for the active ingredient in Viagra, has shown tremendous promise in treating some of the most vulnerable patients: premature babies. By helping relax blood vessels in the lungs, babies with pulmonary hypertension and premature babies on ventilators are able to breathe better and hopefully will be able to avoid some of the health problems that result from prematurity.

At eDrugstore.com, we have been providing Viagra and other drugs in its class to over half a million customers for over 15 years, with unequaled commitment to customer service, privacy, and online security.

Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+