What Are Fetal Alcohol and Drug-Related Syndromes?

Medically Reviewed on 4/27/2022
What is fetal alcohol and drug related syndromes?
There is no known safe amount or period of alcohol consumption during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a disorder (a group of symptoms) that occurs in a person due to prebirth alcohol exposure including wine, beer, and hard liquor often leading to physical, behavioral, and learning disabilities.

No exact statistics are available due to the difficult diagnosis, various symptoms, and varying severity of the condition.

According to the estimation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 2 cases of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are diagnosed in every 1,000 live births in the United States.

What causes fetal alcohol syndrome?

There is no known safe amount or period of alcohol consumption during pregnancy or even when trying to get pregnant.

Alcohol exposure (any amount) during pregnancy can pass through the umbilical cord and damage the developing fetus by:

  • Interfering with the normal development of the nerve cells.
  • Killing cells in different developing parts of the fetus causes intrauterine growth retardation.
  • Constricting the blood vessels, slowing down the blood flow to the uterus, and eventually leading to decreased oxygen and nutrient supply to the fetus.
  • Accumulation of toxic by-products in the brain cells that cause severe damage.

What are the signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

The effects of this condition vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe.

A person with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may have physical, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities and problems functioning and coping with day-to-day activities.

  • Physical problems:
    • Low body weight
    • Small head size
    • Slowing of physical growth
    • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
    • Vision or hearing problems
    • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
    • Short stature
    • Deformed limbs, fingers, or joints
    • Abnormal and distinctive facial features such as:
      • A smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip called the philtrum
      • Thin upper lip
      • Short and upturned nose
      • Small eyes
  • Mental health problems:
    • Brain and central nervous system problems may include:
      • Poor coordination
      • Difficulty balancing
      • Hyperactive behavior
      • Difficulty with attention
      • Poor memory
      • Developmental delays
      • Learning disabilities
      • Speech and language delays
      • Intellectual disability or low intelligent quotient
      • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
      • Frequent mood changes
  • Social, behavioral, and functional problems:
    • Difficulty in school
    • Difficulty getting along with others
    • Poor social skills
    • Trouble switching from one task to another
    • Issues with behavior and impulse control
    • Poor concept of time
    • Problems focusing on a task
    • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal


Conception: The Amazing Journey from Egg to Embryo See Slideshow

What are other drug-related disorders?

Other than fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS; the most severe form), fetal alcohol spectrum disorders involve other drug-related disorders such as:

  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder: This condition may cause intellectual, behavioral, and learning disabilities including difficulties with math, memory, attention, and judgment, and poor impulse control.
  • Alcohol-related birth defects: This condition may lead to problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, or hearing.
  • A neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure: This condition can cause thinking and memory issues, behavior problems, and trouble with day-to-day activities including problems with bathing, dressing, and playing with other children.
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome: This condition has similar characteristics to those of FAS but does not have all the symptoms.

How is fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?

There is no specific medical examination or blood test available for a confirmed diagnosis of this condition; however, a diagnosis can be made based on the following:

  • History of prenatal alcohol exposure
  • Mental health examination (central nervous system problems such as small head size, problems with attention and hyperactivity, and poor coordination)
  • Physical examination (lower-than-average height, weight, or both and presence of typical abnormal facial features)

Is fetal alcohol syndrome curable?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are preventable by avoiding alcohol exposure before and during pregnancy.

Unfortunately, there is no permanent cure available for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and they last a lifetime.

Early intervention and treatment can improve a child’s development through options such as:

  • Symptomatic relief through medications such as antidepressants, antianxiety, stimulants, and neuroleptics
  • Behavior, education therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy
  • Parent training (loving, nurturing, and stable home environment during school years)
  • Other alternative approaches (involvement in special education and social services)

3 conditions resembling FAS

Three conditions that resemble fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  1. Autism spectrum disorder
  2. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  3. Williams syndrome

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Medically Reviewed on 4/27/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

Basics about FASDs Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html#:~:text=Fetal%20alcohol%20spectrum%20disorders%20(FASDs)%20are%20a%20group%20of%20conditions,a%20mix%20of%20these%20problems.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15677-fetal-alcohol-syndrome

Mary Gavin Fetal Alcohol Syndrome KidsHealth: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fas.html