Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

  • Medical Author:
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

How do physicians diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome?

The risk for potential fetal alcohol syndrome is established during the first prenatal visit. Pregnant women are questioned regarding behavioral risk factors, including illicit drug usage, alcohol consumption, smoking, and other high-risk behaviors. Several screening questionnaires may be utilized; these include (1) T-ACE, (2) TWEAK, and (3) AUDIT-C. There are several laboratory blood studies that may indicate recent use or repeated and excessive alcohol abuse.

Prenatal indicators for potential alcohol use would note smaller than expected growth in length, weight, and head measurements. Slower than expected head growth is a reflection of subnormal brain growth. Once born, the above-noted facial changes will lead the pediatrician to consideration of the diagnosis of FAS. The myriad of developmental and cognitive delays discussed above will also stimulate consideration of FAS in children who are failing in cognitive advancement or with associated behavioral deficiencies.

What is the treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome?

While no cure exists for fetal alcohol syndrome, early intervention programs have been shown to lessen the impact of language, motor, and cognitive impairments. Such aggressive programs utilize physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and educational therapy to maximize benefit. Adolescents and adults may benefit from programs dealing with academic, legal, and psychiatric problems.

What are the complications and long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome?

Many of the issues faced by infants and children with FAS continue into adolescence and adulthood. These may include:

  1. problems with "regulation" (sleeping, attention and arousal),
  2. learning disorders,
  3. impairment with vision and hearing,
  4. mental retardation, and
  5. deficits in memory and reasoning.

More unique to adolescents and adults are issues with sexual behavior, legal problems, and substance abuse. It is often observed that the characteristic facial features noted in infancy and childhood seem to "soften" with age. A small-sized head and short stature do continue into adulthood.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/20/2015
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