Fetal Tobacco Syndrome – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Fetal tabaksyndrom

The fetal tobacco syndrome is triggered by active as well as passive smoking during pregnancy, since around 5000 different toxins from a burning cigarette also reach the fetus via the placenta. Miscarriages and premature births are just as often associated with fetal tobacco syndrome, as are sudden infant death syndrome or general developmental disabilities, low IQ, asthma and other respiratory diseases in the newborn child.

What is Fetal Tobacco Syndrome?

Medicine understands fetal tobacco syndrome to be the entirety of all diseases and symptoms from which an unborn child can suffer as a result of active and passive tobacco consumption during pregnancy. Smokers inhale up to 5000 different chemicals. For this reason, the doctor not only advises against smoking in general, but especially during pregnancy, since the unborn child smokes with the mother.

Even if there is no active tobacco use, the fetus can suffer from fetal tobacco syndrome, for example in passively smoking mothers whose spouse smokes cigarettes in the home. Even after the birth of the child, fetal tobacco syndrome can have serious consequences.

Sudden infant death , for example , is associated with passive smoking in half of all cases. However, developmental disorders are more common , which can manifest themselves after birth as a low IQ, low weight, growth disorders , asthma or allergies .


As the name suggests, active and passive tobacco use by the expectant mother is a cause of fetal tobacco syndrome. Tobacco toxins such as arsenic, hydrocyanic acid, benzene, cadium or lead, as well as carbon monoxide and tar are passed on to the embryo through the placenta. The placenta is not equipped with filtering mechanisms and therefore cannot distinguish which substances the fetus needs and which should be kept away from it.

Depending on the intensity of tobacco consumption, the unborn child can suffer considerable damage while still in the womb and may even lose it. The development phases of the fetus are also negatively influenced by tobacco, which is often the reason for low birth weight.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

It is not possible to generally predict which symptoms and complaints are associated with fetal tobacco syndrome. A whole range of different health consequences can be associated with tobacco use during pregnancy. For example, the newborns often have poorer lung function than children of non-smoker parents.

Infections, especially those of the respiratory tract and middle ears , can also be aggravated by parents’ cigarette consumption. Obesity , diabetes and cardiovascular disease are also commonly associated with fetal tobacco syndrome. In addition, early childhood development may be delayed or otherwise impaired as a result of the syndrome.

In connection with deformations, the so-called cleft lip occurs particularly frequently in various forms. In general, the health status of newborns associated with fetal tobacco syndrome is poorer than that of newborns born to non-smoker parents.

Diagnosis & History

The diagnosis of fetal tobacco syndrome is primarily based on the medical history. Since many different and relatively unspecific early childhood diseases can be associated with the syndrome, a reliable diagnosis is hardly possible. Fetal tobacco syndrome often manifests itself as a placenta detachment during pregnancy , so that in the worst case it can lead to a miscarriage or in the best possible case to a premature birth .

The subsequent course of the syndrome depends heavily on the symptoms of past tobacco use. In the worst case, sudden infant death can occur. General developmental disorders or a general lack of health occur more frequently, which under certain circumstances can manifest itself throughout the child’s life.


There are a number of health complications associated with fetal tobacco syndrome. Even during pregnancy, there is an increased risk of a premature placenta detachment and, as a result, a premature birth or miscarriage. After birth, the syndrome often leads to general developmental disorders and a general state of health in the child.

In the worst case, sudden infant death occurs. Health problems can manifest themselves throughout life. Typical late effects include behavioral problems, poor concentration and hyperactivity. In addition, the risk of cancer or cardiovascular diseases is greatly increased in children with fetal tobacco syndrome .

Affected newborns often have reduced lung function and suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases later in life. In addition, the risk of obesity and thus also of type 2 diabetes mellitus is increased. Many of those affected develop malignant blood and lymph gland diseases, which put even more strain on the already ailing organism.

Externally, the disease can lead to the formation of clubfeet, eye deformities and hernias. In rare cases, the heart is also reduced in size or otherwise damaged as a result of the syndrome.

When should you go to the doctor?

This syndrome cannot be treated directly by a doctor. Those affected must overcome their addiction and are not allowed to smoke cigarettes during pregnancy in order not to endanger the well-being of the child. If, however, the habit of smoking does not work without outside help, withdrawal can be carried out. As a result, many complications and discomfort in the child can be avoided. Psychological support and treatment can also be very advisable for this.

Furthermore, visits to the doctor are necessary for this syndrome even if the child suffers from various malformations due to tobacco use. These should be diagnosed and treated very early on. Ear or heart problems in particular can occur and make everyday life difficult for the patient.

The syndrome itself can be diagnosed by a general practitioner or by a pediatrician . However, further treatment is carried out by the respective specialists and depends heavily on the severity of the symptoms. However, if you quit smoking early, most symptoms can be reduced. This also significantly increases the life expectancy of the child.

Treatment & Therapy

Depending on the symptoms present, the doctor decides on the appropriate treatment. Since tobacco use in the past is the cause of fetal tobacco syndrome, there can be no causal treatment in the narrower sense, but only symptomatic treatment.

Malformations such as the cleft lip can be corrected by surgical intervention. Special medications are available to treat respiratory diseases . The same is true for diabetes and many cardiovascular diseases. However, the general developmental disorders of the affected children can hardly be resolved.

Outlook & Forecast

The health damage caused by fetal tobacco syndrome is considered to be incurable. In many cases, the tobacco consumption of the expectant mother triggers permanent health impairments during the development and growth process of the child during pregnancy.

General developmental disorders, short stature or mental retardation must be individually tested and diagnosed after birth. The prognosis of fetal tobacco syndrome is therefore largely dependent on the very different consequential damage that occurs as a result of active or passive tobacco consumption in the pregnant woman.

In severe cases, sudden infant death occurs. Surviving children often suffer from the effects of tobacco syndrome for life. The child’s quality of life is characterized by allergies, respiratory diseases, mental abnormalities or low body weight.

If targeted support measures are taken immediately after birth, long-term improvements in well-being can be achieved. The child’s immune system is supported and stabilized through selected therapies or early medical care.

If the environmental conditions are tailored to the needs of the child, cognitive improvements as well as health optimization can be achieved. Adults are normally able to shape their lifestyle independently. Nevertheless, they have an increased risk of suffering from secondary diseases such as asthma , cancer or mental disorders.


Fetal Tobacco Syndrome is preventable. In this context, pregnant women should, for example, give up smoking. If this is not possible for them, a drastic reduction in tobacco consumption to a maximum of five cigarettes a day is the minimum requirement. However, since passive tobacco consumption can also trigger fetal tobacco syndrome, expectant mothers should also stay away from smoky rooms.

If your partner is a smoker, he should leave the apartment to smoke, for example. Of course, parents must always keep an infant away from tobacco smoke. Although in this context one can no longer speak of fetal tobacco syndrome, cigarette smoke could also trigger sudden infant death or respiratory diseases if the child only comes into contact with it in the first few weeks after birth.


In most cases, the measures or options for aftercare are very limited with this disease, so that the tobacco syndrome must be prevented in the first place. It is therefore absolutely necessary to avoid smoking during pregnancy so that the child does not develop malformations or other defects.

The aftercare itself depends very much on the exact type and extent of the defects and malformations, so that no general prediction can be made. In most cases, the children are dependent on the help of the family or relatives with tobacco syndrome in order to be able to cope with everyday life. Loving care and support always have a positive effect on the further course of the disease.

Psychological upsets also often need treatment, and talking to friends and family can also be helpful. In order to promote the development of the child, intensive measures are necessary, whereby many exercises can also be carried out at home. Parents in particular must become active in order to alleviate the symptoms of tobacco syndrome. The life expectancy of the child may be limited by the tobacco syndrome.

You can do that yourself

The best form of self-help for fetal tobacco syndrome is consistent prevention. The syndrome is exclusively caused by regular smoking or passive smoking during pregnancy. Smokers should therefore be clear before becoming pregnant whether they can and want to give up tobacco consumption for nine months. Nicotine withdrawal should be started before the woman tries to conceive.

If you cannot quit smoking without help, you should seek help. On the one hand, there are self-help groups on the Internet that encourage and support those affected and help keep them motivated. In addition, there are special chewing gums and dragees from the pharmacy that make withdrawal easier. Those affected should seek advice from a pharmacist.

Since passive smoking is also extremely harmful to the embryo, it is important that the pregnant woman no longer smokes anywhere in her social environment. If the partner consumes nicotine , he or she must also give up smoking or consistently leave the shared apartment and the car while smoking.

A smoke-free environment should also be ensured at the workplace. Employers are obliged to protect non-smokers from the consequences of passive smoking. If there are gaps in the workplace, the works council or the trade union should be involved. As a rule, there is also a violation of the workplace ordinance, so that the trade inspectorate can intervene.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.