A hand wearing a rubber glove holds a newborn baby’s foot.

How many people are affected by/at risk for birth defects?

CDC estimates that birth defects occur in about 1 in every 33 infants born in the United States each year.1

Birth defects can occur during any pregnancy, but some factors increase the risk for birth defects. The following situations place pregnant women at higher risk of having a child with a birth defect:2

  • Lack of folic acid. Women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant should take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 2 out of every 5 women of childbearing age take folic acid every day.3
  • Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a variety of problems, including birth defects. For example, using alcohol can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterized by intellectual or developmental disability (IDD), physical challenges, and behavioral problems. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. According to the CDC, 1 of every 10 pregnant women and more than one-half of the women who could become pregnant have consumed alcohol during the past month.4
  • Smoking cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes during pregnancy can lead to a variety of problems, including lung problems such as asthma. Evidence also strongly suggests that certain birth defects, such as problems with the heart and intestines, are caused by smoking during pregnancy.5
  • Using drugs. Using drugs during pregnancy can increase the risk of various birth defects, including IDDs and behavioral problems, as well as pregnancy loss and stillbirth.6
  • Medication use. Certain medications are known to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. Thalidomide, which is currently used to treat certain cancers and other serious conditions, was once sold as a treatment for morning sickness until it was discovered that it caused severe birth defects. Infants whose mothers took thalidomide had a range of structural and functional problems, including misshapen ears and shortened limbs. Although the thalidomide situation led to much stricter controls on drugs used during pregnancy, the majority of medications currently used by pregnant women have not been tested for safety or efficacy in pregnant women. Addressing this issue is the primary focus of NICHD's Obstetric-Fetal Pharmacology Research Units Network. Women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant should discuss all medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, and supplements they take with their health care providers.7
  • Infections. Women who get certain infections during pregnancy are at higher risk for having a child with birth defects. Some of the more common infections that are linked to birth defects are cytomegalovirus, a common virus that spreads through body fluids and usually causes no symptoms in healthy people, and toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that spreads through contact with cat feces, raw meat, and contaminated food and water. Zika virus infection is linked to microcephaly in newborn babies—a condition in which the brain and skull are smaller than normal. The Pregnancy topic has more information on infections that can cause birth defects and other problems in newborns and on ways to prevent them during pregnancy, and CDC provides tips for preventing infections before and during pregnancy.
  • Obesity or uncontrolled diabetes. NICHD research found that the risk of newborn heart defects and neural tube defects increased with maternal obesity. Additional NICHD research suggest that children of obese parents may be at risk for developmental delays. Obesity is also associated with other health problems and long-term health issues. Poorly controlled blood sugar places women at higher risk of having a baby who is too large, has breathing problems, or has other poor health outcomes. These outcomes are likely regardless of whether the woman had diabetes before she got pregnant (type 1 or 2 diabetes) or whether she developed diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes).8
  • Exposure to things in the environment. Pregnant women who breathe in, eat, drink, or get things into their bodies in other ways may also be at increased risk of birth defects. For example, pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of radiation, such as cancer treatments, are at higher risk for birth defects in their infants.9 Handling or breathing in certain chemicals can also increase the risk of birth defects.10

Citations

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Update on overall prevalence of major birth defects—Atlanta, Georgia, 1978–2005. MMWR Weekly Report, 57(1), 1–5. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5701a2.htm [Top]
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Make a PACT for prevention. Commit to healthy choices to help prevent birth defects. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/prevention.html [Top]
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Use of supplements containing folic acid among women of childbearing age—United States, 2007. MMWR Weekly Report, 57(1), 5–8. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5701a3.htm  [Top]
  4. Tan, C. H., Denny, C. H., Cheal, N. E., Sniezek, J. E., Kanny, D. Alcohol use and binge drinking among women of childbearing age—United States, 2011–2013. (2015). MMWR Weekly Report, 64(37), 1042–1046. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6437a3.htm [Top]
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Smoking and pregnancy. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from http://www.cdc.gov/features/pregnantdontsmoke/pregnantdontsmoke.pdf (PDF - 249 KB) [Top]
  6. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2013). FAQ: Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and pregnancy. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from https://www.acog.org/~/media/For%20Patients/faq170.pdf (PDF - 75.3 KB) [Top]
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Medication and pregnancy. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/meds/index.html [Top]
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). 2011 National diabetes fact sheet. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/pdf/ndfs_2011.pdf (PDF - 2.7 MB) [Top]
  9. Williams, P. M., & Fletcher, S. (2010). Health effects of prenatal radiation exposure. American Family Physician, 82(5), 488–493. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/0901/p488.html [Top]
  10. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2013; reaffirmed 2016). Committee Opinion 575: Exposure to toxic environmental agents. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from https://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Health-Care-for-Underserved-Women/Exposure-to-Toxic-Environmental-Agents [Top]

What are the types of birth defects?

How many people are affected by/at risk for birth defects?

What causes birth defects?

How do health care providers diagnose birth defects?

What are the treatments for birth defects?

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