You and your baby’s health is Dr. Morice’s first priority at the Atchafalaya Obstetrics and Gynecology clinic. That is why he advises all of his patients to avoid all teratogens possible during pregnancy.
What is a teratogen?
A teratogen is anything that may cause harm to a fetus, resulting in malformations, low birth weight, or preterm labor. 7% of congenital malformations are caused by teratogens. A teratogen is most often a chemical or infectious agent in the environment that a mother may be exposed to during pregnancy. Common teratogens include medications, drugs, alcohol, secondhand smoke, or infections. Identifying teratogens helps prevent exposure during pregnancy, aiding in preventing malformations.
A teratogen must be able to cross the placenta to affect the baby. The placenta provides a common bloody supply between the mother and the fetus. Therefore, anything that is in the mother’s blood can be passed on to the baby. Because the placenta takes approximately 7-9 days to develop, teratogens are thought to be able to affect a fetus 10 days after conception.
What are common teratogens and their effects?
Below is a list of common teratogens and some of their effects:
- Alcohol: Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). The most common effect of FAS is mental retardation, but it can also cause low birth weight, joint abnormalities, and more.
- Tobacco: Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, placenta previa, or preterm labor. It can also lead to heart defects and developmental defects later in life.
- Marijuana: Smoking marijuana while pregnant can lead to brain defects, decreased mental ability, and more.
- Cocaine and methamphetamines: Using these illegal drugs during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, brain damage, limb abnormalities, heart defects, and more.
- Ionizing radiation: Radiation exposure during pregnancy can lead to leukemia, mental retardation, and abnormal brain development in children. CT-scans provide a high dose of radiation and should be avoided by pregnant women.
- Tetraclycline: This is a common antibiotic that should be avoided during pregnancy. Effects include decreased bone growth and yellow-stained teeth.
- Mercury: Mercury levels are high in large predator fish. Avoid swordfish and sharks. Salmon and tuna should be consumed sparingly. Learn more at seafoodwatch.org. Exposure to mercury can lead to spontaneous abortion or a damaged nervous system.
- Lead: Lead can be found in paint, batteries, metals, cable, toys, pottery, and glass. If food is served on dishes or glassware that contain lead, lead can transfer into a woman’s blood and cause spontaneous abortion or mental and physical abnormalities.
- Cough syrups containing potassium iodine: High doses of potassium iodine can cause abnormal thyroid development, which can lead to mental retardation.
- Toxoplasmosis: This is a disease that can be transferred from animals to humans, most often from cat feces to humans. Pregnant women are advised to avoid kitty litter during pregnancy. Infection with this parasite during pregnancy can lead to mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and hydrocephalus.
- HIV: If a mother is HIV positive, the disease can be passed on the fetus during pregnancy or labor. The fetus, if infected, may be spontaneously aborted or live to be born with the disease.
- Rubella: Rubella is a disease easily shared from person to person via shaking hands or sharing drinks. While there is an effective vaccination for this disease, unvaccinated pregnant women need to be very careful, as rubella presents serious complications for the fetus, including stillbirth, mental retardation, vision and hearing problems, and more. Vaccination before pregnancy is advised.
When are teratogens the most harmful to my baby?
There is not a single point during your pregnancy that teratogens are most harmful. Because all organs develop at different times, exposure to a teratogen can affect your baby at any time during pregnancy. For example, the neural tube develops during weeks 3-5 of pregnancy. Exposure to teratogens during this period may lead to spina bifida, which is when the neural tube doesn’t completely close. However, the central nervous system develops during the entire pregnancy, and can be affected at any point in time by teratogens. Therefore, it’s very important to avoid teratogens during your entire pregnancy.