Understanding the Risk: Alcohol, Drugs, & Birth Defects

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Pregnancy is a beautiful time for most families. As you start to prepare for your family’s new addition, you tend to go the extra mile to help ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. In the United States, 1 in 33 infants has a major birth defect15.

Unfortunately, some mothers to be may not take the warnings about exposing their unborn to alcohol or drugs during the pregnancy seriously, resulting in congenital disabilities and other health problems. Not only is it essential to avoid alcohol and drugs during the pregnancy, but it is also essential to minimize your caffeine and over-the-counter medication consumption.

What are Teratogenic Drugs?

Not only do drugs and alcohol affect pregnancy, but also teratogenic drugs can affect your pregnancy. Teratogenic drugs are substances that can cause birth defects to your unborn child such as over-the-counter drugs or prescription drugs.

Examples of teratogenic drugs in pregnancy include but are not limited to3:

If you take any of the listed medications above, it is imperative to reach out to your health practitioner. Your doctor may have you stop taking the medication, or they may put on the equivalent.

Let your doctor know if you are on any prescribed medications that may interact with your pregnancy. It is also important to note that medical science cannot always predict how exposure to these medications will affect your developing baby.

Drugs, Alcohol and Pregnancy

Consuming alcohol or drugs while pregnant can have lasting impacts on your baby. A baby born from a mother who struggled with substance use or alcohol use during her pregnancy may suffer long-term and short-term effects.

Effects of Alcohol on Babies

When you drink alcohol while pregnant, the alcohol travels through the umbilical cord and delivers the substance to the developing child. When a pregnant person consumes alcohol, there is a heightened risk for stillbirths, miscarriages, and disabilities for the baby after birth.

Approximately 40,000 babies may be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)10. FASD includes fetal alcohol syndrome, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-related birth defects, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. All of these conditions can develop when an individual drinks alcohol while pregnant.

Those who drink heavily during pregnancy risk their babies developing a severe disorder known as fetal alcohol syndrome12. Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause physical defects, brain and central nervous system problems, and social and behavioral issues.

The disease’s symptoms differ from child to child, but it is important to note that you cannot reverse the defects caused by the syndrome. If you are trying to become pregnant or already aware that you are pregnant, it is best for you to stop drinking alcohol if you drink alcohol currently.

Effects of Drugs on Babies

Drugs, such as nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, and meth, can cause severe congenital disabilities5. Consuming these drugs can cause a baby to be born early with birth defects or low birth weight.

Nicotine and Other Harmful Chemicals

When a cigarette is burned, it releases over 7,000 chemicals. While pregnant, all of those chemicals from the cigarette are not only ingested by you, but also your unborn baby1. If you vape, you also consume several substances that can harm your unborn child.

Typical cigarette and vaping birth issues:

It can be a challenging journey to stop smoking, especially if you have been smoking for a long time. If you have a hard time stopping, many resources are available to help you quit6.

Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, also known as (SSRIs) are some of the most widely used drugs in the mental health field. Millions of people use these medications to treat their anxiety and depression.

Most SSRIs are safe to use during pregnancy, but it is still best to reach out to your mental health practitioner for more information. Some studies suggest certain SSRI drugs can create newborn hypertension, heart defects, spina bifida, and other congenital disabilities.

The drugs that can cause these defects are:

These drugs can also cause respiratory defects, nervous system defects, and cardiac defects. There is still a lot of debate about which medicines can cause congenital disability or if they are even the leading cause of the birth defect.


If you struggle with severe acne, you are no stranger to Accutane. For those who do not use Accutane, this drug is a synthetic form of Vitamin A mainly used to treat those with severe acne.

Numerous studies support that this drug causes stillbirth and other congenital disabilities if used during pregnancy. According to the FDA, those who continue to use Accutane during pregnancy have a 35% chance that their baby will be born with a congenital disability14.


Most first-generation antibiotics, such as ampicillin, amoxicillin, and penicillin, are safe to use during pregnancy. However, there is a potential correlation between certain antibiotics and specific congenital disabilities such as heart defects, skull malformation, and cleft lip.

Certain antibiotics linked to these birth defects:

If you currently use any of those medications, it is imperative that you reach out to your doctor immediately. If you started this medication and later became pregnant, make sure to reach out to your physician to see if they have any alternatives that you can take.


Anticonvulsants are used to help control or prevent different types of seizures. A handful of anti-seizure medications are linked to increased rates of birth defects such as cleft lips, organ abnormalities, and developmental delays7.

Anticonvulsant drugs linked to these potential congenital disabilities are:

Controlling seizures in pregnant women is very important to keep the unborn baby healthy. Certain types of seizures can cause a person to have a miscarriage.


NSAIDs, also known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, include many over-the-counter fever-reducing and pain-reducing medications worldwide. The most common ones you may already be aware of are Advil, Motrin, and Aleve. Many people use these medications regularly to help treat headaches, body aches, and fevers.

NSAIDs can pose a small health risk of congenital disabilities, particularly cardiac septal defects. Although the risk is relatively small, most doctors recommend their patients to take Tylenol or other alternative medications instead.


Benzodiazepines, commonly known as Benzos, are psychoactive drugs that many people use to calm themselves. These drugs work by boosting the effectiveness of certain chemical activities within the brain that typically trigger the feeling of calmness.

Most patients receive a prescription of Benzodiazepines to treat mental health conditions such as anxiety. Those who have insomnia may also take Benzodiazepines to help put them to sleep.

This drug is also commonly used to control seizures in those with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The use of Benzodiazepines during pregnancy is also linked to birth defects like low birth weight and can cause neonatal symptoms17.

Can I Stop Taking My Medication?

It can be very dangerous if you stop taking the medication you need. There is a risk that you could become sick or you could harm your baby. For example, if you have asthma but stop taking your medication, there is an increased risk of slowing your baby’s growth rate.

If you have epilepsy or other conditions that cause seizures, you should not stop using your medicine unless your doctor tells you to do so. If you are pregnant, make sure to let your doctor know so they can monitor you and make sure that you have the medicine you need to control your seizures. If you were to stop taking your medication, there is an increased risk of having seizures which could complicate the pregnancy and harm the unborn child.

Without the treatment of prescribed drugs, the welfare and health of the baby and the mother could be at risk. Again, it is best to reach out to your health care practitioner about any concerns you may have so that they can get you the best treatment possible.

Why Are Pregnant Women Warned Not to Use Drugs?

It is possible that you may not have a long-lasting problem after using substances, but it is not the same for your unborn child. Those who abuse drugs while pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with congenital disabilities.

If you are addicted to drugs such as cocaine, you not only put your life in danger but the life of your unborn child. The consequences of abusing cocaine while pregnant are strokes, respiratory failure, heart attacks, and seizures.

These problems will not only affect you but they can be passed on to your baby. The effects of cocaine may only affect the mother for a short amount of time but the impact it could have on the baby could last their whole lifetime.

Those babies born from mothers who smoke crack cocaine during pregnancy typically have their own set of mental and physical problems. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an unborn child’s exposure to cocaine can lead to deficits in information processing, cognitive performance, and attention to specific tasks. These areas are vital to the developmental stages during their school ages and in life overall.

Which Drugs Have the Most Severe Consequences?

It is important to note that taking any type of drug can pose severe threats to the life of your unborn child. Those who abuse cocaine may give birth to children with smaller heads, indicating a lower IQ16. There is also the possibility that the baby may have birth defects that affect the heart or their urinary tract.

Mothers who use methamphetamine have an increased risk of having a miscarriage. When used later in the pregnancy, illicit drugs can cause the baby to have feeding difficulties, irritabilities, low birth rates, and there is a chance the mother may go into preterm labor.

Women who smoke marijuana face an increased risk of premature birth. Smoking marijuana can cause developmental delays in the child8. After delivery, the baby may have an issue with trembling and excessive crying.

Is Caffeine a Drug?

Caffeine is a stimulant and a diuretic, therefore this makes caffeine a drug. Caffeine is legal and is in many common foods and drinks, such as chocolate and coffee.

Most doctors recommend that their patients who need caffeine or who enjoy consuming it should regulate their caffeine use. Medical professionals generally recommend that pregnant women do not drink more than 200 mg of caffeine per day2.

If caffeine is taken in large quantities, there is a chance that the baby may have a low birth rate and irritability. Avoiding caffeine as much as possible during your pregnancy may be the safest course of action.

Are Any Drugs Safe During Pregnancy?

A few prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications may be safe for you to use while pregnant, but illicit drugs are not. If you are taking medicine for medical purposes, make sure to talk to your health care provider about any concerns.

Generally, doctors say that these drugs are usually safe to take while pregnant:

Be sure to consult your doctor before taking any medications while you are pregnant. Some medications may be safe towards the end of your pregnancy, but not in the first trimester.

How to Prevent Congenital Disabilities

The best way to prevent any possible birth defects is to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. It may not be safe to stop taking drugs or alcohol on your own without a medical professional present. If you have been abusing drugs or alcohol and experience withdrawal symptoms, it is best to seek help.

Preventing birth defects takes a lot of commitment, and it can be hard to stop abusing certain substances due to their addictive behavior. If you need help creating your addiction, addiction treatment centers are available for you to reach out to for help.

What Are Addiction Treatment Facilities?

Addiction treatment facilities specialize in treating addiction issues for a wide range of drugs. Some facilities specialize in alcohol addiction, while others focus on drugs.

Depending on your addiction, it is best to partner with a facility that specializes in what you need. Even if you are pregnant, you can still receive treatment.

It is recommended that you seek treatment at an inpatient facility so they can help you detox in a safe environment. If you try to detox at home, there is a chance you could have a miscarriage if the detox is done improperly. 

How to Find a Treatment Facility

Several different facilities are either local to you or they can be in a whole different state. The location of the treatment facility is up to you and your specific needs. If you have obligations that keep you from moving away from home, a local facility may be the best fit for you. If you want to go to a place far away from home because you would like to avoid your triggers, choose a treatment center that is out of your state.

A quick online search will show you several different facilities to choose from. It is best not to choose the first available option as other factors can influence seeking treatment like whether you need an in-patient or outpatient program.

Inpatient Treatment Centers

Inpatient care, also known as residential treatment, requires you to check yourself into the facility to help overcome your addictions. While you stay at the facility, there will be 24 hour round-the-clock emotional and medical support available for you.

During the first step, which is detox, you will have a medical professional there with you helping you through the process. Inpatient treatment keeps the individual away from their triggers and holds them accountable.

The 24-hour support that comes with an in-patient treatment facility can be beneficial to people who are just starting their recovery journey. There are also amenities that patients have access to while they stay at the facility. It is important to note that although this option comes with many great benefits, it also costs more than an outpatient treatment plan.

Outpatient Treatment Centers

Outpatient treatment facilities are a lower level of care than inpatient treatment centers. Instead of staying at the center, you will have to come to the facility for your treatments. Often, outpatient treatment is given after the stay at an inpatient facility.

This option is better for those who have other engagements that they need to tend to, such as work, school, or their children if they have any. As mentioned above, this option is also cheaper than inpatient because you don’t stay at the facility.

There is no available 24-hour care if you go through with an outpatient treatment center. Most outpatient treatment centers have a specific time that they close, so you do not have the same access to care that you do at an inpatient facility. If you can hold yourself accountable to come to your meetings and treatments, this option may work for you.


Most treatment facilities take health insurance to cover the cost of your treatment. It is vital to research the facility of your choice to make sure that they accept your health insurance to help minimize your expenses.

If you don’t have insurance, still reach out to the treatment facility because they may have other options of payment. They may have payment plans and treatment plans that will suit your budget while still providing you with the help you need.


Each facility offers different amenities. Some facilities may provide basic amenities such as cleaning services, educational opportunities, and meditative space. There are other facilities that provide you with more amenities, such as exercise opportunities, spas, yoga classes, and more. Those locations with higher-end amenities may also cost more.

Accreditation and Certifications

Most reputable addiction treatment centers have accreditation by the Joint Commission11. The Joint Commission is an independent, nonprofit organization that bases its accreditation on a facility’s demonstrated results, industry performance standards, value, and quality.

This accreditation ensures that only legitimate quality treatment centers can advertise their services. This helps protect consumers from going to any facilities without proper certifications or licenses.

Keep in mind that it is usually not obvious which treatment centers are unethical or ethical with most businesses. Be cautious when researching facilities and check out their reviews as well. Most rehab facilities have a Better Business Bureau page that can provide insight into a treatment facility.

Multidisciplinary Treatment Staff

The highest quality treatment facility locations have a multidisciplinary team that can treat all aspects of your addiction, your mind, body, and spirit. This means that your rehabilitation program should have a mix of professionals who work together to create the best treatment plan for you. All team members on staff should have the proper licenses to practice in their discipline.

Common multidisciplinary teams typically consist of:

Find Help for Addiction

Abusing drugs and alcohol while pregnant can come with severe risks to you and your unborn baby. Help is available and encouraged for people who are struggling with addiction while pregnant.

If you or someone you know and love needs help with their alcohol or drug addiction, contact us today. Our staff here at Healthy Life Recovery can provide you with information about addiction recovery and the available treatment plans for you.

Dr. Sanajai Thankachen

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen graduated from Adichunchanagiri Institute of Medicine in 2000. He completed his residency in psychiatry in 2008 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York. Dr. Thankachen is currently working with Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists in an outpatient practice, as well as working at multiple in-patient psychiatric and medical units bringing his patients the most advanced healthcare treatment in psychiatry. Dr. Thankachen sees patients with an array of disorders, including depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, anxiety, and dementia-related problems.

More About Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Sean Leonard Bio Image

Edited for Clinical Accuracy By:

Sean Leonard, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Sean Leonard is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. He received his master’s degree in adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner from Walden University and a second postmaster specialty in psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner from Rocky Mountain University. Sean has experience working in various diverse settings, including an outpatient clinic, inpatient detox and rehab, psychiatric emergency, and dual diagnosis programs. His specialty areas include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and OCD.

More About Sean Leonard


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