Birth defects are conditions that develop while a baby is in the mother’s womb. Defects range in severity, with certain types affecting how the body functions. These days, it is often possible for doctors to diagnose defects before the baby is born, and some can be effectively treated.
There are over 4,000 types of birth defects. In the U.S., around 120,000 children are born with a birth defect each year—roughly one in every 33 births.
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Causes and Risk Factors of Birth Defects
While many occur at random, the causes of certain birth defects are known, and some can be prevented. For example, fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when the mother drinks alcohol throughout the pregnancy, which is not recommended.
The following factors can increase the risk of a child being born with a birth defect.
- Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs: Drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking illegal drugs during pregnancy can significantly increase the risk of a baby being born with a birth defect, particularly fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Medical conditions: Women with medical conditions like diabetes have a higher chance of giving birth to a baby with one or more birth defects.
- Medications: Some prescribed drugs, such as the antiemetic drug Zofran, have been linked to birth defects and should not be taken during pregnancy.
- Genes and family history: Birth defects can be passed down from family members.
- Age: Older mothers are more likely to have issues during pregnancy than women under the age of 34, including an increased risk of their child being born with a birth defect.
Types of Birth Defects
Birth defects are categorized by the part of the body that is affected. There are two main types of birth defects: structural and functional. In many cases, defects overlap and a child may have both structural and functional issues.
Primary Birth Defect Types
|Structural Defects||Functional Defects|
|Structural defects happen when parts of the body are misconfigured or malformed. This includes cleft palates, abnormal limbs, and spina bifida.||Functional (or developmental) defects impact how body systems perform. They can often lead to intellectual and developmental disabilities.|
Functional defects can be further classified into several subcategories.
- Neurological disorders: Issues with the brain or nervous system can cause language difficulties, seizures, and problems with mobility. Down Syndrome is one of the most common neurological disorders.
- Sensory disorders: These disorders affect any of the five senses, and include blindness or deafness.
- Metabolic disorders: These are birth defects impacting how the body processes chemical reactions. Some examples include Tay-Sachs disease and hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland.
- Degenerative disorders: Some disorders are not obvious at the time of birth but cause a child’s health to worsen over time. One example is muscular dystrophy.
Diagnosing and Treating Birth Defects
Most birth defects are detected within a child’s first year, with some being noticeable right away, like cleft lip and Down Syndrome. Other defects, like heart issues, will require more tests to identify and treat. Tests vary based on symptoms, but can include echocardiograms and x-rays.
Did you know?MedLinePlus
Treatment for birth defects depends on the type and varies based on the severity of the condition. Many children with structural defects, like cleft palates and congenital heart defects, require surgery to correct the issues.
With today’s advanced technology, some issues can be detected and even corrected before the baby is born. Certain medications can help treat heart disorders detected while the child is still in the womb.
As with many health conditions, it’s important to confirm a diagnosis to establish an effective treatment plan. Speak to your doctor if you think your child may have a birth defect.
Preventing Birth Defects
While certain birth defects cannot be prevented, some steps can be taken to reduce the risk of a child being born with a birth defect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking a PACT during pregnancy: Plan ahead, Avoid harmful substances, Choose a healthy lifestyle, Talk to your doctor.
See a healthcare professional regularly and take daily folic acid vitamins. Folic acid is a type of vitamin B that can significantly reduce the chances of a child having a birth defect.
Avoid Harmful Substances
It is crucial to avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs during pregnancy, as they are known to cause a variety of birth defects. In the womb, a child ingests what the mother ingests, so smoking or drinking will affect the baby and can inhibit their development.
Choose a Healthy Lifestyle
If you have diabetes and are pregnant, it is important to keep your sugar levels under control for the safety of your baby. Obese women are also more likely to give birth to a child with birth defects, and have an increased risk of complications during pregnancy. Leading a healthy lifestyle is good for both mother and child.
Talk to Your Doctor
It is important to consult with your doctor about any medications or vaccinations that you take during pregnancy, as well as any issues you may experience. Some medications, such as Zofran, thalidomide (Thalamid) and isotretinoin (Accutane), have been linked to birth defects. If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, talk to your doctor about what medications are safe to use.
Birth Defect Lawsuits
In an effort to reduce severe morning sickness during pregnancy, many women were prescribed the antiemetic drug Zofran, developed by GlaxoSmithKline. Unfortunately, some of the side effects of ondansetron are linked to a number of birth defects in children, including cleft palates, heart defects, and kidney issues.
Did you know?$3 billion settlement
Zofran was initially developed to treat nausea in patients undergoing treatments for cancer, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer. It was never approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat morning sickness. As a result, in 2011 the Justice Department took the drug’s manufacturer to court, leading to a $3 billion settlement, the largest healthcare settlement to date. Since then, over 430 Zofran lawsuits have been brought to court by families negatively affected by the drug.
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