A birth defect is some abnormality in the structure, function or metabolism of your body that is present at birth. These defects happen during your development in your mother’s womb, most often during the first 3 months of pregnancy.
There are more than 4,000 different types of known birth defects, many of which cause mental or physical disabilities. Although numerous “present at birth” defects can be treated or cured, some will result in death.
These are generally three overall causes for birth defects:
- genetic mutation
- chromosome error, abnormality
- certain environmental exposures during pregnancy
These factors can cause birth defects individually or in combination. And frequently the actual cause will remain a mystery.
Presently, there’s only a few choices involved with genetic and chromosomal causes for birth defects, i.e. refrain from reproduction if you’re a carrier of a birth defect causing gene. However, as a pregnant woman, you can limit your exposure to environmental teratogen that have known links for causing defects.
A teratogen is an agent that causes birth defects by interfering with embryonic development. Environmental substances that can cause birth defects include alcohol, certain drugs, infections, radiation and certain toxic chemicals, notably agricultural types.
Alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, so don’t drink any alcohol while pregnant. Some illicit drugs that may cause birth defects include cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines and ecstasy. But, if you are pregnant you must not use any illegal drugs.
These are some prescription drugs that are considered unsafe to take during pregnancy because of birth defect risks:
- warfarin ~ anticoagulant
- lithium ~ bipolar disorder
- acitretin ~ severe psoriasis
- levothyroxine ~ hypothyroidism
- isotretinoin, other retinoids ~ acne
- androgen, testosterone by-products
- certain anticancer, chemotherapy drugs
- thalidomide ~ skin condition caused by leprosy
- streptomycin, kanamycin, tetracycline ~ antibiotics
- ACE inhibitors ~ hypertension, heart failure, heart disease
- lenalidomide ~ myelodysplastic syndrome, multiple myeloma
- methotrexate ~ severe psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, neoplastic diseases
- carbamazepine, phenytoin, trimethadione, paramethadione, valproic acid ~ seizures
In any case, you should always inform your health care provider about any drugs you take, whether illicit or prescribed, if you are pregnant or are thinking about conceiving.
Certain infectious diseases can cause birth defects during pregnancy, including:
- STDs ~ syphilis
- fifth disease ~ parvovirus
- Venezuelan equine encephalitis
One of the best measures you can take to reduce your risk of contracting a contagious viral infection is to wash your hands frequently. And if you have diabetes with poorly controlled blood sugar levels, then you may put your unborn child at risk for a birth defect.
As stated previously, there are in excess of 4,000 different types of birth defects. A sampling of the more common, and not so common, types are:
- club foot
- cystic fibrosis
- cerebral palsy
- cleft lip, palate
- Rett syndrome
- Down syndrome
- Turner syndrome
- Marfan syndrome
- sickle cell anemia
- fragile X syndrome
- Tay-Sachs disease
- muscular dystrophy
- Klinefelter syndrome
- Prader-Willi syndrome
- hearing loss, deafness
- fetal alcohol syndrome
- congenital heart defects
- congenital adrenal hyperplasia
- neural tube defects ~ spina bifida, anencephaly
- blindness, cataracts, color-blindness, other vision problems
- gastrointestional tract defects ~ esophageal atresia, pyloric stenosis, Hirschsprung’s disease, anal atresia, biliary atresia
As a woman of child bearing years, there are a number of things you can do before and during pregnancy to reduce your child’s chances of having a birth defect, like:
- begin your pregnancy at a healthy weight
- avoid rodent contact ~ hamsters, mice & guinea pigs
- don’t drink alcohol nor smoke, avoid secondhand smoke
- don’t eat undercooked meat nor change a cat’s litter box
- get a checkup with a health care provider prior to conception
- eat healthy foods, particularly foods containing folic acid & folate
- confirm vaccinations are up-to-date and test for immunity to rubella & chickenpox
- take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid daily commencing before pregnancy
- don’t eat fish that contain high concentration of mercury ~ shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish
- refrain from using any drug that’s not approved by a health care provider, including OTC medications or herbal preparations
Amniocentesis is a common prenatal test that can rule out certain birth defects.