Sign In
Skip to content
Help us improve our website by providing your valuable feedback

Fetal Exposure to Harmful Effects of Drugs or Alcohol

Smoking during pregnancy

Cigarette smoke contains chemicals that are harmful to a developing fetus. Smoking nearly doubles a woman's risk of having a low-birthweight baby. This can occur because of a slower growth rate of the fetus and because smoking can contribute to an increased risk of preterm delivery. Smaller babies have higher risk of health problems during the newborn period and of chronic problems like learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation. The American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on smoking says, "Pregnant women who smoke should be aware of increased risks to their offspring, including spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, and long-term cognitive and behavioral problems including lower intelligence and attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity."

Alcohol use during pregnancy

There is no safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Alcohol can damage a fetus at any stage of pregnancy. Alcohol use in pregnancy can cause permanent, life-long physical and mental birth defects. Physical defects include smaller brain size; defects in internal organs, especially the heart; and changes in facial features. However, these features can be subtle and difficult to diagnose. Alcohol use during pregnancy can result in lifelong learning disabilities. The effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy are entirely preventable. For more information on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), go to

Cocaine use during pregnancy

Cocaine use during the early months of pregnancy may increase the risk of miscarriage. It may also cause problems for the fetus such as heart attack, serious birth defects, and stroke. Cocaine use in later pregnancy can result in premature labor by causing the placenta to detach from the uterus too soon. Any of these conditions may lead to brain damage or death of the woman or fetus or both.

Newborns that have been exposed to cocaine may start life with serious health problems such as low birthweight, mental retardation, coordination problems (such as cerebral palsy), and attention and learning problems. The effects of cocaine exposure are entirely preventable.

Other drugs

Many drugs, legal and illegal, can cause unwanted fetal effects. Some addictive drugs, like heroin, can cause the fetus to become dependent on the drug and lead to very serious health consequences and fragile newborns.


Some medications, like commonly used seizure medications, warfarin (commonly known as Coumadin) a blood thinning medication; isotretinoin (commonly known as Accutane) to reduce acne; certain anti-depressant medications, especially lithium; high blood pressure medication, (ACE Inhibitors like Captopril and Lisinopril); anticancer medications (Methotrexate) and antithyroid medication (Thiouracil or similar medications) and some antibiotics, can also harm the fetus. Women using any medications, whether prescription or non-prescription, should tell their health care provider as soon as pregnancy is suspected.

backBack | Nextback