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Istituto Superiore di Sanità
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Epidemiology for public health - ISS

Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe condition that may occur in babies as a result of alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy.


The negative effects of alcohol exposure on intrauterine development have only recently been recognized: the first descriptions of clinical symptoms clearly attributable to harm caused by alcohol during and after pregnancy were published in France, in 1968, and in the United States, a few years later. A growing number of studies worldwide have since helped to better define the range of conditions associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, also known as “Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders” (FASDs), and estimate their prevalence in different countries.


Women have a lower percentage of water in their bodies than men of the same height. Therefore, a woman drinking the same amount of alcohol as a man will end up with a higher concentration of it in her blood, which means that alcohol will take longer to leave her body. That said, it takes the foetus even longer to eliminate alcohol from its system. The alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman, and especially acetaldehyde (a by-product of alcohol metabolization), passes freely into the unborn baby’s blood stream through the placenta. The foetus cannot metabolize alcohol the same way an adult does, and is therefore exposed to its harmful effects for an extended period of time.


FAS is a permanent disabling condition, causing mental and physical disabilities. However, it is fully preventable by abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy.


There is currently no cure for FAS, but early identification and diagnosis of this condition make it possible to provide affected children with the services and care they need. 


Publication date: 29 March 2021