The consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome are lifelong and include mental, physical and behavioral concerns.

Article at a Glance:

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a lifelong condition that impacts both children and adults.

FAS is usually diagnosed in children but can be diagnosed in older individuals as well.

The long-term consequences of FAS include physical, mental and behavioral abnormalities.

No cure for FAS is available, but the condition can be treated.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a type of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The condition can cause central nervous system problems, physical malformations and multiple issues with learning and behavior. While some symptoms can be treated, the disorder itself is permanent.

The Causes

Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by alcohol entering the bloodstream of an unborn child, which occurs when a woman ingests alcohol during pregnancy. When alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, a percentage of it crosses into the placenta and enters the fetus. Alcohol can create a variety of side effects in an unborn child because the liver of a fetus can’t process alcohol like an adult. The presence of alcohol in an unborn child can:

  • Kill healthy cells, resulting in abnormal development
  • Harm the development of nerve cells
  • Slow blood flow to the placenta, depriving the fetus of oxygen and nutrients
  • Damage the brain of the fetus with toxic alcohol byproducts

Childhood Symptoms

The signs of FAS are often noticeable in early childhood and can vary in intensity. A newborn with FAS typically has a low body weight and lags behind in growth. The child may also show a specific pattern of facial malformations, including:

  • Small eye sockets
  • Smooth skin between the nose and upper lip (philtrum) instead of a crease
  • Flattened cheekbones

FAS is often accompanied by alcohol-related birth defects (ARBDs), such as problems with the heart, kidneys, skeleton, ears and eyes.

Throughout childhood, individuals with FAS may struggle with interpersonal boundaries. They might need excessive physical contact and show hyperactivity. They might also have trouble remembering things, have a short attention span and struggle with their motor skills.

Diagnosis of FAS

No specific medical tests exist for FAS, so a diagnosis is usually made based on the presence of various factors. These include:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth philtrum
  • Short stature
  • Low body weight
  • Central nervous system problems, such as a small head size
  • Problems with hyperactivity, attention and coordination
  • Known alcohol intake by the mother during pregnancy

Physical Signs and Effects of FAS in Adults

Many physical effects of FAS persist into adulthood. However, these effects may look less distinctive in adults than children. Physical effects of FAS that last into adulthood often include:

  • Short stature
  • Small head size
  • Thin upper lip
  • Reduced brain size

Mental Health and Behavioral Struggles in Adults with FAS

Mental health concerns are common in adults with FAS, impacting 90% of people with the disorder. These issues include:

  • Problems with attention, distraction, learning and memory
  • Decision-making and planning problems
  • Externalizing problems, such as aggression
  • Internalizing problems, such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder
    • Depression impacts 44% of adults with FAS
    • Psychotic symptoms impact 40%
    • Anxiety impacts 20%
    • Bipolar disorder impacts 20%

Children who have no physical abnormalities but struggle with mental and behavioral concerns may have alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND). A child with ARND may show developmental disabilities with behavioral and learning problems without the facial abnormalities that indicate FAS.

Secondary Conditions of FAS in Adults

The effects of FAS can be especially difficult to navigate during adulthood when individuals are expected to take care of themselves. Adults with FAS often need support as they try to handle situations like housing, employment, transportation and money management.

Studies have shown that:

  • 87% of people with FAS have never had a regular job
  • 70% are unemployed
  • 80% need help with their daily activities
  • 66% live in an assisted-living or institutional environment
  • 60% are impacted by alcohol or drug dependence

How To Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults

Diagnosis of FAS in adults is similar to FAS diagnosis in children, but it’s complicated by the fact that children with FAS look more physically distinctive than adults with the disorder. Additionally, getting a history of a mother’s alcohol use in pregnancy may be more difficult when the person is an adult. Nonetheless, doctors can evaluate the presence of certain factors, including:

  • A small head
  • A thin upper lip
  • Short stature
  • Known behavioral or cognitive problems

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there is no cure for FAS. The syndrome is a permanent, irreversible condition; however, it can be treated. If a child is diagnosed with FAS, early intervention treatment may help their development. As a person gets older, treatments can be customized to the person’s needs and may include:

  • Medications targeted at relieving some symptoms of FAS, like depression
  • Therapy to help with both behavioral and educational goals
  • Parent or caregiver training

In addition, counseling services are available for the parents or caregivers of children with FAS. If a mother continues to struggle with alcohol abuse after the child is born, rehabilitation services can help with addiction recovery.

Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The most obvious way to prevent FAS is to refrain from drinking alcohol while pregnant. This syndrome is preventable if no alcohol is consumed during this time. It’s important to also avoid drinking alcohol if you’re trying to become pregnant or think you might already be pregnant. Take a pregnancy test as soon as you suspect that you’re pregnant. If you discover that you were drinking after the time of conception, tell your doctor and stop drinking immediately.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use or a co-occurring mental health condition, The Recovery Village is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about addiction treatment programs and recovery resources that can help you begin the path toward a healthier and substance-free future.

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Interagency Coordinating Committee on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. “Recognizing Alcohol-Related Neurodevelop[…]lth Care of Children.” November 2, 2011. Accessed August 14, 2021.

Moore, E.M., Riley, E.P. “What Happens When Children with Fetal Al[…]rders Become Adults?” Current Developmental Disorders Reports, September 1, 2016. Accessed August 14, 2021.

Cleveland Clinic. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” Accessed August 14, 2021. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” September 7, 2018. Accessed August 14, 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Basics about FASDs.” May 21, 2021. Accessed August 14, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.