Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults: FAS Effects in Adulthood

As one of the few diseases that are 100% preventable, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and its effects remain one of the most misunderstood and underdiagnosed, especially in adults with FAS.

In the United States, as many as nine out of every one thousand babies born will have fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS); these babies will grow into adults who face struggles and hardships, including a high risk of developing substance use disorders.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a lifelong condition that develops in babies exposed to alcohol before birth. FAS includes physical features and developmental disabilities; not every child will FAS will have the same signs and symptoms.

When women drink during pregnancy, the developing fetus absorbs alcohol through the umbilical cord and placenta. A fetus cannot process and metabolize alcohol like a grown adult, leading to damage or delays to the developing organs and alcohol-related brain damage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that despite common misconceptions, there is no safe time during pregnancy to drink alcohol, and beer and wine are just as dangerous as liquor for a developing fetus. Any amount of alcohol intake is a risk for pregnant women.

Other risk factors that increase the chance of fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • The quantity of alcohol the pregnant person drinks
  • The frequency of alcohol consumption
  • What stage the developing fetus is at when drinking occurs
  • Age of the pregnant person
  • Previous pregnancies and births
  • Smoking
  • Poor nutritional intake
  • Lack of prenatal care

Because development is ongoing throughout pregnancy, it is always a good time to stop drinking to prevent further damage. Medical detox and supervision may be necessary for pregnant people struggling with alcohol use disorders to avoid complications from alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

There is no genetic marker to test for FAS, nor is there a cure at any age, so medical professionals and behavioral experts must know what to look for to offer the proper treatments and early interventions.

Symptoms of Adults with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs on a spectrum, so as children, many symptoms may be overlooked or overshadowed by more pressing health issues.

Additionally, babies born to parents who continue to struggle with addiction may not receive proper attention and medical intervention to help them cope with FAS from a young age.

FAS includes physical, behavioral, and developmental difficulties that persist throughout life.

Developmental Disabilities

Developmental disabilities are various conditions that may be physical, educational, or behavioral. Some areas of development may be delayed or never occur at all. While there is no cure for FAS and developmental disabilities, support programs and interventions are available.

Developmental disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Memory difficulties
  • Delayed or impaired language development
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision difficulties
  • Hypersensitivity to stimuli
  • Poor accademic performance
  • Lack of coordination and reflexes
  • Aggression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulse control
  • Short attention span
  • Sexually inappropriate and aggressive behavior
  • Poor reasoning and judgment

Secondary Disabilities

Secondary disabilities and conditions are complications and difficulties arising from unaddressed developmental and behavioral disabilities. For instance, if someone struggles with retaining information and understanding instructions, they will have trouble holding jobs requiring those skills. Secondary disabilities tend to have a cumulative effect over a lifetime.

Secondary disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Chronic unemployment
  • Housing insecurity
  • Inability to live independently
  • High arrest and incarceration rates
  • Unstable and co-dependant relationships
  • High rates of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Poverty
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • High risk of victimization
  • High rates of suicide

Some of these may seem weird or entirely unrelated to FAS, but as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains, “FAS-related brain damage makes it difficult to address routine life situations. It causes people to make bad decisions, repeat the same mistakes, trust the wrong people, and have difficulty understanding the consequences of their actions.”

FAS does not guarantee that people will experience any of these secondary disabilities, and the CDC stresses that the outcomes are much more positive with early intervention and appropriate treatments.

fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms in adults

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facial Features

Traditionally, medical professionals used the distinct facial features caused by fetal alcohol syndrome to diagnose it in babies; however, many physical FAS markers disappear during puberty, making it harder for adults to receive a diagnosis.

Fetal alcohol syndrome facial features include:

  • Small head size
  • Thin upper lip
  • A smooth philtrum, the vertical line between the nose and upper lip is absent
  • Small eyes
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Flat or sunken cheeks
  • Short, upturned, or snub nose
  • Widely spaced or far apart eyes
  • Crossed eyes
  • A low or flat nose bridge
  • Small or underdeveloped jaw

The University of Washington estimates that for every baby born with visible FAS facial features, there are then that appear healthy but have brain damage, organ damage, and central nervous system deficits from alcohol exposure.

Long-Term Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome can come from physical, behavioral, and environmental factors. Though some will be unavoidable, people who receive an early diagnosis and treatment options are less likely to experience long-term FAS complications.

Many of the long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome include the previously mentioned secondary disabilities.

Long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Physical growth problems and underdevelopment
  • Learning and behavior development disabilities and struggles
  • Financial trouble
  • Legal trouble
  • Relationship struggles
  • Employment difficulties
  • Mental health disorders
  • Lack of self-sufficiency
  • Substance and alcohol use disorders
  • Chronic physical health issues
  • Infertility

Early intervention from primary care physicians and social workers can help avoid long-term FAS effects. However, if the parents of a FAS baby fail to follow up on treatment options or seek proper support, there is a high risk the quality of life for people with FAS will not be ideal.

fetal alcohol syndrome facial features

Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment

If you are pregnant or hope for children in the future but struggle with alcohol addiction and worry about your alcohol use disorder affecting your children, help is possible. If you or a loved one are an adult living with fetal alcohol syndrome and struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone and can be the one to end the cycle.

At Northridge Addiction Treatment Center, we take a whole-person approach, treating the roots of your addiction, not only the symptoms. We believe in meeting people where they are at, with personalized treatment plans centered on your unique needs and abilities. The compassionate team at NATC is licensed, experienced, and invested in helping you live the most fulfilling life possible.

The best prevention measure for FAS is stopping drinking before becoming pregnant. However, if you are already pregnant, the next best time is now. We understand that it is not always as simple as choosing not to drink during pregnancy; we offer evidence-based treatments to ensure you overcome your addiction and learn new behaviors to minimize relapses.

Our onsite medical detox ensures safety, health, and comfort during alcohol withdrawal, including 24-hour medical care and daily, healthy, chef-catered meals.

For adults with FAS, we help you learn healthy habits and coping skills while addressing behavioral and mental health aspects of alcohol addiction. We offer a variety of resources that support the healing process and empower you to advocate for yourself and your family in the future.

The path to recovery is a phone call away. Reach out to one of our caring treatment specialists to reclaim your life free from substance abuse.

Find Meaningful Recovery

Our caring and compassionate specialists are eager to help you comfortably navigate this journey to recovery. Our individualized treatment plan, programs, and therapies may be a perfect match for you or your loved one. Let us assist you in living the happy life you deserve. It starts with a phone call.

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