Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This condition can have behavioral, cognitive, and physical effects on the developing fetus. One common physical effect of FAS is distinct changes to facial structure.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) affect up to 5% of first graders in the United States. The most severe form of FASD is FAS. Individuals with FAS may experience social and emotional difficulties.

People with FAS may have distinctive facial features, which range from small eye openings to a flat nose bridge.

This article explores the connection between FAS and the face. It also discusses other effects of FASD and treatments for the condition.

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Many individuals with FAS have unique facial features. These may include:

  • small horizontal eye openings
  • a thin upper lip
  • flat nose bridge

People with FAS may also have a distinctive philtrum, which is the groove between the bottom of the nose and the top of the upper lip. Some individuals with FAS may have a philtrum that is smoother than average.

FAS can also affect head size. Many children born with FAS have smaller heads than those without the condition. A smaller head size might also affect facial appearance.

In a 2023 study, scientists analyzed prenatal alcohol exposure and facial shape. They found that higher levels of exposure led to greater changes in facial shape. However, they also noted that these facial changes became less pronounced over time.

Learn more about fetal alcohol syndrome.

In addition to facial changes, FASDs can have a wide range of other effects. For example, infants with FASD may have a low body weight. Children with FASDs also may have a higher risk of:

  • behavioral issues
  • anxiety
  • developmental conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • seizures
  • impulsivity

Individuals with FASD may also experience difficulties with memory, learning, communication, and executive functioning, such as thought processes and decision-making. These and other effects of FASDs can negatively affect social interactions.

Learn more about FASD and behavior issues.

The effects of FASDs can affect every aspect of an individual’s life. For example, research has shown that children with FASDs have a higher risk of experiencing family instability. The difficulties relating to FASDs may also become more pronounced over time.

One study found that up to 60% of adults and adolescents with FASD had experiences with the criminal justice system. This is 30 times higher than the overall population.

In another study, researchers found that FASD can affect metabolism. Adults with FASD may have a higher risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes. They may also have a higher risk of overweight or obesity.

Individuals with FASDs may experience a wide range of symptoms or secondary conditions. There are a number of medications and other treatments that help manage the effects of FASDs.

Medications for FASDs

There is no single medication to treat FASDs. Healthcare professionals prescribe medications to manage the unique symptoms of individuals. These may include:

  • stimulants for concentration difficulties or hyperactivity
  • neuroleptics for anxiety, aggression, or other behavioral issues
  • antidepressants for depressive symptoms
  • anxiety medications

Choosing the right medication, or combination of medications, depends on an individual’s symptoms. To learn more about medications for FASDs, a person can speak with a healthcare professional.

Other treatment options

Behavioral interventions can also help address FASD symptoms. Some children with FASDs may benefit from skill-building in group settings. Learning new skills in a group of children with the same condition can foster a sense of community and empowerment.

Occupational therapy may also help people with FASD manage their symptoms. This type of therapy can help improve executive functioning, social skills, and impulsivity.

Alternative FASD treatment options may also include:

Each person with FASD may experience various symptoms. Finding the right combination of medication and other treatments can help manage these symptoms.

The following are answers to common questions about FASD.

Can FASDs occur from having one drink?

Any amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have harmful effects. These effects worsen in severity according to the amount of alcohol a pregnant person consumes. Consuming large amounts of alcohol may lead to more severe cases of FASDs.

Individuals who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should avoid consuming any amount of alcohol. Avoiding alcohol is the only guaranteed way to prevent FASDs.

What are the five signs and symptoms of FASDs?

The symptoms of FASDs may be different for each person. But five of the more common signs and symptoms of this condition include:

  • low body weight
  • learning difficulties
  • hyperactivity
  • coordination issues
  • speech delays

To learn more about the symptoms of FASDs, a person can speak with a healthcare professional. They can determine whether an individual’s symptoms meet the criteria for an FASD diagnosis.

Prenatal exposure to alcohol can lead to serious conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASDs). The most severe type of FASD — fetal alcohol syndrome — may cause distinctive facial features.

These features may include small eye openings, a thin upper lip, and a flat nose bridge. People with FASDs also experience behavioral issues, concentration problems, and executive dysfunction.

Treatment for FASDs involves a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. The right treatment plan can help individuals with FASDs manage their symptoms.