Fetal Alcohol Syndrome | Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms, & Treatment

While FAS and FASD are not curable and cannot be reversed, treatment interventions are available to help care for and improve the cognitive and behavioral function of those impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are conditions that can occur in a child after exposure to alcohol during the mother’s pregnancy.

These effects are common causes for non-genetic intellectual disability and can have a variety of other life-long effects including developmental delays, physical defects, and behavioral problems.

While FAS and FASD are not curable and cannot be reversed, treatment interventions are available to help care for and improve the cognitive and behavioral function of those impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure

Causes Of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a narrower diagnosis than fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and is the most common and severe condition within FASD’s scope.

FAS and the other conditions that fall under FASD have the same cause: a developing fetus is exposed to alcohol. When an expectant mother drinks, the alcohol is transferred from the mother to the fetus through the placenta.

While the risk of alcohol exposure is greatest during the first trimester, when many structures are in their earliest stage of development, elevated blood alcohol levels are dangerous at any stage of pregnancy and remain harmful after birth if transferred through breast milk.

Other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Ranked from most to least severe, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS)
  • alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • alcohol related birth defects (ARBD)
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)

Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Clinicians may use psychological, speech-language, or other occupational therapy assessments to diagnose someone with FAS.

In order for an individual to be diagnosed with FAS, they must display all of the following:

  • growth deficiency with prenatal or postnatal weight or height at or below the 10th percentile
  • distinctive facial features including small eyes, thin upper lip, a short upturned nose, and smooth philtrum (level skin between the nose and upper lip)
  • neurological or functional impairment to the central nervous system, observed as problems with learning, memory, attention, communication, vision, or hearing
  • confirmed or unknown/suspected alcohol use by the mother during pregnancy

Unfortunately, FAS often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as other mental health disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As a result, many individuals never receive the correct care and therapy as they struggle with lifelong physical, social, behavioral, and developmental disabilities and deficits.

Symptoms Of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

FAS can cause a wide range of specific effects that may vary from person to person depending on their particular circumstances and the severity of their prenatal alcohol exposure.

Physical Malformations

FAS may cause additional distinctive abnormalities and growth problems such as:

  • joint, limb, or finger defects
  • small head/brain size
  • vision/hearing difficulties
  • heart defects
  • decreased physical growth

Central Nervous System Defects

Central nervous system (CNS) problems associated with FAS may include:

  • poor coordination
  • intellectual disabilities/retardation
  • learning disabilities
  • memory impairment
  • difficulties with reasoning and problem-solving
  • reduced attention span
  • hyperactivity
  • poor judgment
  • mood swings

Social & Behavioral Deficits

Those diagnosed with FAS face predictable social and behavioral challenges that may include:

  • difficulty in school
  • difficulty interacting with peers
  • low social skills
  • poor adaptability to changing circumstances
  • poor impulse control
  • difficulty making, focusing on, and achieving specific goals

Treating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

It is vital that healthcare or social services professionals diagnose individuals with FAS as early in their lives as possible to arrange access to treatment experts and other special education and public health resources.

Early intervention services can have a significant impact on the quality of life for those with FAS, minimizing many developmental and behavioral challenges.

Treatment programs for FAS may include:

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

There is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy, and alcohol abuse (and binge drinking in particular) pose a risk to developing babies and pregnant women alike.

If a woman has difficulty giving up alcohol consumption during pregnancy, addiction may be present and professional treatment could be necessary.

During treatment, physical, behavioral, social, and mental elements of alcohol addiction can be addressed through treatment options such as:

  • counseling
  • medication-assisted treatment
  • behavioral therapy
  • motivational enhancement therapy
  • peer support
  • alternative therapies like art, yoga, or nature therapy

If you or someone you love needs care for alcohol use disorder, please contact Northeast Addictions Treatment Center to learn about our substance abuse services today.

Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.