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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults

Last Updated: September 22, 2023

Adults with fetal alcohol syndrome can suffer from the same problems they did as a child, but they may present differently.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is dangerous and can affect someone’s brain throughout their lives. However, this condition is avoidable, occurring only because someone’s mother used alcohol while pregnant.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a medical condition that can occur when someone’s mother uses alcohol during their pregnancy. This can result in mental impairment, behavioral problems and facial deformities. Fetal alcohol syndrome is often thought of as a spectrum, with differing severities of the condition occurring for different people. 

A person with fetal alcohol syndrome is affected by it throughout their life. Some mistakenly believe it only has an effect during infancy or childhood, but the impact can carry over into adulthood and have a life-long effect.

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Alcohol exposure before birth causes fetal alcohol syndrome. This occurs when a pregnant woman uses alcohol, even if it happens before she knows she is pregnant. Alcohol is a toxic chemical that can seriously affect a developing baby. Most of this damage occurs in the baby’s brain but can also result in deformities. 

How Much Drinking Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Any drinking while pregnant can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Even a single drink may be harmful to the developing baby. Because any amount of alcohol can be hazardous and women typically do not know they are pregnant for the first few weeks of pregnancy, doctors recommend that even those who are trying to become pregnant do not use alcohol. Therefore, anyone who is pregnant should not have any amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

While any amount of alcohol can be harmful, it is important to remember that alcohol is more likely to be dangerous during the first trimester, or the first 13 weeks, of pregnancy. Many essential developments occur during this period, and exposure to alcohol or toxins can be particularly harmful.

Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome affects children differently. However, the main symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome are neurological problems, facial deformities and behavioral symptoms.

Facial Features & Physical Symptoms

Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause several physical symptoms that may be visually noticeable. Facial and physical symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome may include:

  • Small head
  • Lower-than-normal weight
  • Small eye openings
  • Low nasal bridge
  • Flat midface
  • Smooth upper lip under the tongue
  • Thin upper lip

While fetal alcohol syndrome may cause these deformities, someone without these deformities can still have the neurological effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Neurological & Behavioral Symptoms

Fetal alcohol syndrome affects brain development. This can lead to neurological deficits and cause someone to have less control over their behaviors. Neurological symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Poor memory
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Difficulty learning
  • Hyperactive behaviors
  • Intellectual disability
  • Problems with reasoning
  • Impaired judgment

Many of the behavioral or psychological problems that can occur with fetal alcohol syndrome are actually caused by neurological developmental problems.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a form of brain damage causing permanent problems that cannot be cured. Adults with fetal alcohol syndrome suffer from the same problems they did as a child but manifested in different ways. 

Mental Health in Adults With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Of adults with fetal alcohol syndrome, 90% have mental health problems. These mental health conditions can be due to changes in the brain. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other mental health problems are common. Additionally, children with fetal alcohol syndrome may be exposed to negative environmental factors that affect their mental health as adults.

Lifestyle, Legal and Other Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome on Adults

Of adults with fetal alcohol syndrome, 60% experience legal problems. Impaired judgment and decreased control over behaviors can increase the likelihood of actions that create legal issues. Additionally, 45% of adults with fetal alcohol syndrome have substance use problems, further increasing legal problems.

Fetal alcohol syndrome causes learning problems, difficulty concentrating and even intellectual disability. These challenges make it harder to get a good education and hold a good job, leading to lower income and a lower standard of living. Some adults may even need help caring for themselves.

Life Expectancy for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome, unfortunately, harms overall life expectancy. Research shows that people with fetal alcohol syndrome will live about 34 years on average, less than half of a normal lifespan. The disabilities that fetal alcohol syndrome creates make people with this condition especially vulnerable to neurological disease, making them 52 times more likely to be hospitalized for these conditions and four times more likely to die from them.

Treating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome cannot be treated itself, but the impact of the symptoms that it causes may be lessened with treatment. For example, medication to treat ADHD or therapy to improve behaviors or attention may be beneficial. However, these treatments will only be partially effective, as the underlying problem is permanent.

Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

While fetal alcohol syndrome is impossible to treat, it is very easy to prevent. Not drinking alcohol while pregnant makes the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome almost 0%. To avoid the permanent brain damage that fetal alcohol syndrome creates, doctors highly recommend not drinking any alcohol while pregnant or if you may become pregnant. Avoiding alcohol while pregnant is the only way to prevent this condition, and even one drink can substantially increase the risk.

If you are struggling to stop using alcohol and may be pregnant, either now or soon, you must get help now. Using alcohol while pregnant could make your child an invalid during their life, and getting professional help is the best way to ensure that you remain sober for the entire pregnancy. We can help; contact a Recovery Advocate today to help protect your child from alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

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