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What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of birth defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Children with FAS have many physical, mental and behavioral problems and may be mentally retarded. They are small, underweight babies. As they get older, they often have trouble with learning, attention, memory, and problem solving. They may have poor coordination, be impulsive, and have speech and hearing problems.

The effects of FAS last a lifetime. Most children with FAS have trouble with work and with personal relationships when they become adults. Many have legal problems.

FAS is identified as a pattern of physical, developmental, and functional abnormalities in a child resulting from a woman's drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Characteristics of children with FAS include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Small head circumference
  • Failure to thrive
  • Developmental delay
  • Organ dysfunction
  • Facial abnormalities, including smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones, and indistinct philtrum (an underdeveloped groove between the nose and the upper lip)
  • Epilepsy
  • Poor coordination/fine motor skills
  • Poor socialization skills, such as difficulty building and maintaining friendships and relating to groups
  • Lack of imagination or curiosity
  • Learning difficulties, including poor memory, inability to understand concepts such as time and money, poor language comprehension, poor problem-solving skills
  • Behavioral problems, including hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, social withdrawal, stubbornness, impulsiveness, and anxiety
  • Children with FAE display the same symptoms, but to a lesser degree, and are less likely to have mental retardation.

    There's no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. In general, the physical defects and mental deficiencies persist for a lifetime. Heart abnormalities may require surgery. Learning problems may be helped by special services in school. Parents often benefit from counseling to help the family with a child's behavior problems.

    More information on alcoholism and drinking

    What is alcoholism? - Alcoholism is an addictive dependency on alcohol characterised by craving, loss of control, physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms.
    What is alcohol abuse? - Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it does not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence.
    What are the signs and symptoms of alcoholism? - People who abuse alcohol may experience many of the same signs and symptoms as people who are dependent on alcohol.
    What causes alcoholism? - D2 dopamine receptor gene increases a person's chance of developing alcoholism. Usually, a variety of factors contribute to the development of a problem with alcohol.
    What're the risk factors for alcoholism? - Steady drinking over time can produce a physical dependence on alcohol. Drinking over 14 drinks a week for men or seven drinks a week for women increases the risk of developing dependence on alcohol.
    What are the effects of alcoholism? - Alcohol depresses your central nervous system by acting as a sedative. In some people, the initial reaction may be stimulation, but as drinking continues, sedating or calming effects occur.
    What is fetal alcohol syndrome? - Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of birth defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
    What is moderate drinking? - Four or five drinks may be moderate for large individuals but excessive for small or light people. The typical woman should generally consume 25 to 30 percent less than the average man.
    What're the health benefits of moderate drinking? - Moderate drinkers tend to have better health and live longer than those who are either abstainers or heavy drinkers.
    What is alcoholism treatment? - Treatment may include detoxification (the process of safely getting alcohol out of one's system), taking doctor-prescribed medications, and individual and group counseling.
    What alternative therapy is available for alcoholism? - Acupuncture may reduce anxiety and depression, which lead some people to drink alcohol. Involving a spouse in the treatment process may increase the chances of success in treatment and in staying sober after treatment.
    Why does alcohol affect women differently? - Women are effected by alcohol more rapidly because they tend to have a higher proportion of body fat than men.
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