Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is unfortunately a relatively common congenital syndrome, which is, however, easily preventable. It is associated with alcohol intake in pregnancy, which is common among female alcoholics. The syndrome includes a wide range of physical and mental deviations.


The syndrome is caused by effect of alcohol on the body of the fetus. Alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the fetal blood stream. This has a devastating effect on tissues of the developing fetus, whose liver is unable to effectively handle the toxic substance. The heaviest damage may occur in the first weeks of pregnancy (i.e. at the time when the woman may not even know about her pregnancy), but alcohol is harmful even for the rest of the pregnancy. 


The impact of alcohol on growing and developing organism is very wide. The children usually have lower birth weight and suffer from subsequent growth disturbance. There are also changes in the face including narrow eye slits, short nose and thinned upper lip. Normal healthy people have a small hole known as philtrum right in the middle line above the upper lip. Children exposed to alcohol have the philtrum only shadow, or completely missing.


The heaviest handicap is the brain damage. It is quite logical - the developing brain is very sensitive to external stimuli and easily injured by toxic alcohol substance. The consequences are different. The patients may have a higher risk of epileptic seizures; they suffer from mental retardation, hearing disorders, learning disability, decreased attention and behavioral disorders.


Diagnosis is determined by finding the above mentioned clinical symptoms combined with the fact that mother drank alcohol during her pregnancy. Any prenatal genetic screening can not diagnose the syndrome, the syndrome is induced by alcohol and the fetus is genetically absolutely normal.


The primary an only prevention is not to drink any alcohol beverages during the pregnancy. For some women, however, it is an insurmountable problem. Although studies have shown that minimal amounts of alcohol should not have any significant effect on pregnancy, or birth defects occurrence, it is advisable not to risk.


Once the syndrome occurs, it is incurable. Mental disability requires individual approach, special pedagogical care, etc.


Jiri Stefanek, MD  Author of texts: Jiri Stefanek, MD
 Contact: jiri.stefanek@seznam.cz
 Sources: basic text sources