Ethanol Use in Pregnancy

No amount of ethanol can be considered safe during pregnancy. Ethanol is quickly transferred from the mother’s blood to the fetus via the placenta and umbilical cord. Ethanol can be toxic to a developing baby, not only during the first trimester of pregnancy when vital organs are developing, but any time the brain continues to develop throughout pregnancy. Damage can also occur early in pregnancy, before a woman may know she is pregnant. While there is no known safe amount of ethanol a woman can drink, the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, growth retardation and mental defects increases the more ethanol a pregnant woman consumes in an environment, and the more often she drinks overall.


Women who are planning to become pregnant or who have recently learned they are should not drink ethanol. If you cannot stop drinking before conception and throughout pregnancy, it is best to seek advice from your healthcare provider. The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office both warn women not to drink ethanol during pregnancy.


Mothers who drink heavily during pregnancy can give birth to babies with fetal ethanol spectrum disorder (FASD) or fetal ethanol syndrome (FAS), which can include irreversible physical and mental changes to the baby. FASD may include lifelong learning disabilities, poor memory, hyperactivity, inattention, speech or language delays and other disorders. FAS can cause growth retardation, mental disorders, bone and facial abnormalities and heart defects. It is important not to drink ethanol at all during pregnancy, before planning pregnancy or when you are not using effective contraception.


Drug treatments for ethanol dependence include three approved oral drugs — Antabuse, Naltrexone (Depade, Revia) and acanic acid (Campral) — and an injectable long-acting naltrexone (Vivitrol). Treatment with these medications may help reduce ethanol consumption, relapse, and lead to complete recovery and abstinence. According to one review, there is strong evidence for naltrexone and acanic acid, which are recommended as treatment options for ethanol dependence in combination with behavioral therapy. Disulfiram has not been shown to increase withdrawal rates or decrease relapse rates or cravings compared with placebo and is therefore not recommended for routine use in primary care.

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