Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Developing Immune System

The Prevention Conversation: A Shared Responsibility Project

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Developing Immune System

Author: Theresa W. Gauthier, M.D.

Most Americans are aware that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can injure the developing fetus. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), with their developmental, cognitive, and behavioral consequences, probably are the best known dangers (Bakoyiannis et al. 2014; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2009). However, drinking during pregnancy also can disrupt other areas of fetal development besides the brain, including the developing immune system. Studies in humans and animals suggest that alcohol does, in fact, affect the developing immune system and leads to increased risk of infection and disease in infants exposed to alcohol in utero.

Alcohol’s effect on the developing immune system is apparent in infants born at term gestation, with studies showing that these babies are at increased risk of infection when exposed to alcohol in utero. However, premature infants are…

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