Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is characterized by incurable physical and mental defects that include brain damage and growth problems. Such defects are the consequence of pregnant women’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. According to WHO (2007), fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the most serious diseases that may occur in the fetus because the mother-to-be consumes alcohol. It is characterized by disorders of development and craniofacial abnormalities.

Also, the development is slow and the central nervous system is damaged. A mental disability may be observed. The external signs of the syndrome are a short palpebral fissure, a thin upper lip, and a smooth philtrum.

The Effects of Alcohol on Experimental Animals

The insertion of alcohol during conception and the first weeks of embryo development are accompanied by mutagenic and cytotoxic processes. It leads to death or violation of embryo development.  The changes of conditioned reflex activity and behavioral reactions were observed not only in experimental animals but also in their offspring (the second generation).

The violation of sexual function and maternal behavior took place. The animals that were affected by alcohol during the antenatal period had problems with higher integrative functions and orienting-investigative activity. Moreover, passive defense reactions prevailed and a depression-like condition was noticed. They had learning and memory problems.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

When a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant, some amount of alcohol easily passes through the placenta to the fetus. The body of a developing fetus doesn’t process alcohol the same way as an adult body does. The alcohol is more concentrated in the fetus and can prevent proper nutrition and oxygen from getting to the fetus’ vital organs.

Consumption of alcohol is especially harmful during the first few weeks of pregnancy when a woman is not aware of her pregnancy. The risk increases if the mother is a heavy drinker.

According to many types of research, alcohol consumption is considered to be most harmful during the first three months of pregnancy. However, alcohol can be harmful during the whole pregnancy and after childbirth as well.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms and Signs

Since fetal alcohol syndrome covers a wide range of problems, there are many possible symptoms. The severity of these symptoms ranges from mild to severe, and can include:

  • a small head;
  • a smooth philtrum between the upper lip and nose, small and wide-set eyes, a very thin upper lip, or other abnormal facial features;
  • below average height and weight;
  • hyperactivity;
  • problems with concentration;
  • poor coordination;
  • delayed development and problems in thinking, speech, movement, and social skills;
  • poor judgment;
  • problems seeing or hearing;
  • learning disabilities;
  • intellectual disability;
  • heart problems;
  • kidney defects and abnormalities;
  • deformed limbs or fingers;
  • mood swings.

How is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?

It is well-known the earlier, the better. You should consult your doctor if you think that your baby might suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. Do not lie to your doctor that you consume alcohol. A physical exam of the baby may show a heart murmur or other heart problems. As the baby matures, there may be other signs that help confirm the diagnosis. These include:

  • the slow growth;
  • abnormal facial peculiarities or bone growth;
  • hearing and vision problems;
  • slow language acquisition;
  • small head size;
  • poor coordination.


Unfortunately, FAS can’t be treated, but still, there are treatments for some symptoms. This disease requires numerous visits to different specialists.



There are no special medications. However, some drugs may deal with certain symptoms.

These medications include:

  • antidepressants to treat problems with sadness and negativity;
  • stimulants to cope with concentration problems, hyperactivity, and other behavioral problems;
  • neuroleptics to treat anxiety and aggression;
  • antianxiety drugs to deal with anxiety.

Behavioral training is recommended since it may improve behavior, social skills. Talk therapy or support groups may be helpful. It is recommended to consider alternative treatments such as massage and acupuncture, physical exercise, or yoga.


Unfortunately, many physicians do not speak of alcohol problems with their patients. It is necessary to screen women of reproductive age.  It allows identifying those who are at high risk to have children with FAS and then the doctor helps the woman refuse to consume alcohol before conception. Support groups are highly recommended in order to get rid of alcohol addiction.