Alcoholism can sometimes lead to lasting consequences —not only for the user but for their children as well. The most apparent example of this is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a physical and neurological disorder caused by mothers drinking while pregnant. Addiction and alcoholism are the most common causes of this malady. Here are the facts surrounding FAS and how it can be prevented.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a series of four diagnoses caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe diagnosis on the spectrum, while the others may refer to specific or less serious developmental disorders. However, this spectrum is not without controversy.
Some countries only accept fetal alcohol syndrome as an official diagnosis, because the defining characteristics of other disorders in FASD are unclear and difficult to diagnose with certainty. In some cases, FASD symptoms may overlap with other developmental disorders like ADHD and the autistic spectrum. However, the Center for Disease Control describes each of the four disorders and their symptoms:
- Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Syndrome (ND-PAE): ND-PAE was recognized in the fifth and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The disorder focuses on neurological effects like thinking and memory impairment, behavioral problems like irritability, and difficulty keeping a routine. In order to be considered ND-PAE, these symptoms must be coupled with the person’s mother having drunk 2 or more drinks in a sitting or more than 13 in a month while pregnant.
- Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): A variety of congenital disabilities are associated with prenatal alcohol abuse. Defects can include heart, kidney, and bone problems. ARBD describes these symptoms apart from other developmental or behavioral effects.
- Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): ARND describes neurological disorders that can affect behavior and learning.
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): This is the most severe end of the spectrum and can result in the death of a fetus during pregnancy. In adults, FAS can result in congenital disabilities, growth problems, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.
How Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Happens
Pregnant mothers typically take great care when deciding what to put in their bodies. There are seemingly endless diets and ideas about what expecting mothers should eat that are safe for their developing babies. One thing is for sure; alcohol can have a profound effect on fetal development. In fact, studies show that alcohol abuse can affect brain development up to the age of 25-years-old.
However, if a mother-to-be accidentally takes a sip of alcohol at a work function or social engagement, she may get strange looks, but she most likely won’t do any permanent damage to her baby. Though any alcohol consumption is a risk during pregnancy, it typically takes two drinks in one sitting to cause some of the more mild symptoms on the fetal alcohol spectrum and four drinks to cause fetal alcohol syndrome.
Typically, a knowing mother won’t cause fetal alcohol syndrome just because she wants to let loose at a party. More likely, it comes as a result of alcoholism. According to a US Department of Health and Human Services study, about 4.7% of pregnant women in North America are alcoholics and about a third of children born to alcoholics develop FAS.
Scientists have studied the mechanism of alcohol causing fetal alcohol syndrome with no conclusive results. It’s clear that alcohol can cause changes in all aspects of the developing central nervous system of a fetus. Plus, in adults, the liver is capable of detoxifying the body of moderate alcohol consumption. However, a fetus’s liver isn’t yet capable of processing alcohol efficiently.
Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults
There are several physical effects of alcohol syndrome that are apparent even in adulthood. Some can be severe including organ defects or bone growth problems. To diagnose FAS, doctors have developed a “4-Digit Diagnostic Code.” The first sign involves growth and physical development. Typically, adults with PAS are shorter and smaller than average with the disorder affecting their growth and development.
In the second digit, visible facial features are used to identify FAS. Facial deformities include:
- The philtrum (the groove in your upper lip that bridges your nose and mouth) flattens in FAS.
- The upper lip is thinner than average.
- Eye openings are smaller than average, and the palpebral fissures (space between lids in the corner of the eye closest to the nose) are small or absent.
- The nose bridge is short and low.
- The circumference of the head is smaller.
It’s important to note; however, that some of these facial features can be mild and can mimic usually occurring genetic facial features. Still, notable deformities in facial features typically indicate brain damage.
The third digit involves neurological impairments or structural damage to the central nervous system. If there is no evidence of either, FAS is ruled out. If there are no signs of structural damage, then neurological impairments are assessed. The neurological effects of fetal alcohol syndrome can cause some cognitive and behavioral consequences. Developmental issues like learning disabilities are common. Poor memory and hyperactivity are also common, and low IQ may occur in some cases.
The fourth digit takes other standard related signs into account. Co-occurring conditions involving the heart, bones, kidneys, and eyes are common.
Secondary Effects of FAS
Adults living with fetal alcohol syndrome can be at a greater risk for secondary factors. A major area of concern is legal troubles. People with FAS or FASD tend to have a higher arrest and imprisonment rate. In fact, half of all people with FASD experience a run in with legal troubles at one point during their life. Poor memory plays a significant role after a person has been arrested and released on probation. They may not remember their probationary rules and may lie to officers when filling in gaps in their memory. Some have trouble understanding ownership and will be caught stealing.
For some of the same reasons, people with FAS can also have trouble maintaining work, managing money, or keeping an active social life. Some may even have health problems that come from difficulties understanding healthy practices like proper hygiene.
Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Following safe practices while pregnant and complete abstinence from alcohol is the safest way to avoid fetal alcohol syndrome. However, addiction can make that difficult. If you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism or substance abuse and expecting, call The Palm Beach Institute at 855-960-5456 today to find out more. Your path to recovery and your baby’s safety may start with one phone call.