CDC: 3 Million Women Risk Getting Pregnant While Still Drinking

3 Million Women Risk Getting Pregnant While Still Drinking

More than 3 million women of childbearing age risk harming their developing babies with alcohol.

downloadMany women don’t find out they are pregnant until after they have already put their fetus at risk from drinking alcohol during important early developmental stages.


Most women who are trying to get pregnant as soon as possible put down their birth control but neglect to do the same with alcohol – and this behavior can have devastating consequences on their babies’ health.

So says a report out Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that 3 in 4 women who plan to get pregnant soon are still drinking alcohol. It also found that overall – whether women plan to get pregnant or not – an estimated 3.3 million from the ages of 15 to 44 are at risk of harming their developing baby with alcohol because they are drinking, having sex and not using birth control.

“It’s important to note that women who are drinking during pregnancy are not trying to harm their babies,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director, said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “They are either not aware of their risks, are not aware they are pregnant, or need help to stop drinking.”

Drinking alcohol during a pregnancy can lead to miscarriage,premature birth, stillbirth or sudden infant death syndrome. When a fetus survives, it can be born with a type of alcohol spectrum disorders, which are a range of mental, behavioral and physical problems that can get in the way of development and require a lifetime of treatment though therapy and medicines. The most severe type, fetal alcohol syndrome, causes facial abnormalities, growth problems and issues with the nervous system. Estimates show that 1 in 20 U.S. children may have a type of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Schuchat said.

Health officials are sounding the alarm for all fertile, sexually active women because half of pregnancies are unplanned, and women often don’t find out they are pregnant for four to six weeks after conception. These early stages are important to fetal development, and alcohol during that time can be dangerous.

Binge drinking, or consuming more than four alcoholic drinks in a single occasion, as well as regular heavy drinking, can put a fetus at greatest risk for severe problems. Still, no amount of alcohol during pregnancy has been found to be safe.

“It’s not a question of how many drinks, it’s any drinks,” Schuchat said. “Why take the risk?”

Yet drinking during pregnancy is not uncommon. Another report from the CDC in September found that about 10.2 percent of pregnant women had alcohol during the past month, and that a third of them engage in binge drinking.

download (1)When CDC has previously looked at similar data, it found the incidences of drinking among women who could become pregnant were at 2 million, but Schuchat said a direct comparison couldn’t be made because questions in that particular survey were different. She did note, however, that it is known that alcohol use and binge drinking among women has increased.

Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that the prevalence of binge drinking among U.S. women rose sharply by 17.5 percent from 2005 to 2012. Government dietary guidelines recommend that women have no more than one drink per occasion, such as during a dinner or at a party.

The CDC has urged women not to drink at all when they are pregnant, and Tuesday’s data led it to remind those who could become pregnant to do the same if they are not using birth control.

In a call with reporters, the CDC said that doctors should be asking patients about alcohol use. It did not set pregnant women apart for screening on alcohol use anymore than it did for the general population, instead saying all adults should be screened and counseled each year about alcohol intake. This type of screening is covered by health insurance through reforms created by the Affordable Care Act, as is contraception.

“Many women who are not trying to get pregnant are drinking right now, and they are at risk of getting pregnant because they are not using contraception,” Schuchat said.

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