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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in Adults: Symptoms, Life Expectancy & Treatment

Written by Theresa Valenzky

& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

Medically Reviewed

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Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Updated 07/07/2023

Although fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition commonly recognized during childhood, its effects last long into adulthood.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that affects children as they grow in the womb. It has a wide range of severity but essentially results in impaired neurological development. FAS is only caused by using alcohol while pregnant, affecting the baby’s growth.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a spectrum of disorders, sometimes called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). The condition ranges in severity but is always caused by the same thing; using alcohol during pregnancy. The baby’s brain undergoes many necessary developmental steps during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester. Alcohol can disrupt normal growth and lead to permanent neurological disability.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Childhood Symptoms and Diagnosis

Fetal alcohol syndrome typically becomes obvious during childhood and is often diagnosed by its symptoms and a history of alcohol use by the person’s mother before their birth.

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome that may be noticeable during childhood include:

  • Low birth or developmental weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Short attention span
  • Poor memory
  • Problems learning
  • Developmental delays
  • Low level of intellect
  • Problems sleeping or eating after birth
  • Hearing problems
  • Vision problems
  • Facial deformities at birth

Fetal alcohol syndrome is often considered a childhood disease because it is detected in children; however, it is permanent, and its effects last throughout someone’s entire life.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms in Adults

While fetal alcohol syndrome is commonly recognized during childhood, its effects last long into adulthood. The signs and symptoms of this condition may change as someone reaches adulthood and impact them more as it affects their independence.

Physical Signs and Characteristics

There are several physical characteristics that an adult with fetal alcohol syndrome may have. These include:

  • A short stature
  • A thin lip
  • A smooth upper lip lacking a ridge
  • Flat nasal bridge
  • Upturned nose
  • Epicanthal folds

Some of these physical characteristics can be present in people who do not have fetal alcohol syndrome; however, they may indicate that the condition is present.

Mental and Neurological Symptoms

Because fetal alcohol syndrome affects brain development, there are several neurological symptoms that it can cause. Many of these involve an adult’s ability to function normally and can cause them to become dependent on others. Some of the neurological symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Poor memory
  • Impaired learning
  • Particularly poor performance in math
  • Low IQ
  • Poor reasoning skills
  • Vision and hearing problems

These symptoms can range in severity from being minorly impairing to making someone completely dependent on others their entire life.

Behavioral and Social Struggles

Unfortunately, the neurological symptoms caused by fetal alcohol syndrome can also lead to behavioral symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Impulsivity
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Increased sensitivity to stimuli
  • Mental health problems, like depression

Most of these behavioral symptoms occur due to poor impulse control and can be present in children and adults.

Treatment for Adults With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is no way of curing fetal alcohol syndrome. Instead, any treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome focuses on reducing the severity of symptoms, not eliminating them. Because of this, treatment will differ based on the person’s symptoms.

Vision and hearing problems are treated using hearing aids and glasses. Behavioral issues are treated through therapy and medication when appropriate. Neurological problems may benefit from education for those with intellectual deficits. While treatment may improve symptoms, it will never eliminate them as the underlying problem will always be present.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention

The only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to avoid alcohol while pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Most people who become pregnant don’t know they are pregnant until several weeks after the pregnancy has already begun, making it important to stop drinking before becoming pregnant.

There is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Even a single drink could affect your child’s development. If you use alcohol and are planning on trying to conceive, it is vital that you stop drinking beforehand.

Stopping alcohol during pregnancy may be difficult or even seem impossible if you have an alcohol addiction. At The Recovery Village at Baptist Health, we know how difficult it can be to stop alcohol and have the experience to help you quit. Contact us to learn how to keep your child safe and stop using alcohol during pregnancy.

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction?

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What is the life expectancy of a person with fetal alcohol syndrome?

The impairments that fetal alcohol syndrome causes are serious. People with this condition see their lives cut short by over 50%, with an average life expectancy of 34 years.

Does fetal alcohol syndrome get worse with age?

Yes, the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome become worse and more obvious as someone ages. By adulthood, most people with fetal alcohol syndrome require help with the basic activities of life and need someone to help keep them safe from impulsive actions.

Can adults with FASD live independently?

Because fetal alcohol disorder is a spectrum with different levels of severity, it is impossible to tell if an adult with this condition can live alone. Often adults with fetal alcohol syndrome will need assistance and cannot be independent; however, some with this condition may be able to live by themselves safely.

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Kelly, Sandra J.; Day, Nancy; & Streissguth, Ann P. “Effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on social behavior in humans and other species.” Neurotoxicology and Teratology, June 22, 2009. Accessed April 20, 2023.

Murawski, Nathen J.; Moore, Eileen M.; & et al. “Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 2015. Accessed April 20, 2023.

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