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Birth Defects

Birth defects are changes to a body part that develop before birth. Birth defects can affect how parts of the body look or function. Birth defects do not include birth injuries. The effects of birth defects can be mild or severe. 

Why is this important?

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth defects are common, costly, and critical conditions that impact 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States each year. Every 4.5 minutes, a baby is born with a birth defect in the United States. That means nearly 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year. Between 2% and 3% of infants have one or more defects at birth. That number increases to 5% by age one (not all defects are discovered directly after a child's birth). According to the Child Fatality Review Report, about 24% of all infant deaths are caused by birth defects in Kentucky. 

What is known?​

According to the NIH, there are two main categories of birth defects, structural and functional. Structural birth defects are related to a problem with the structure of body parts. Examples of structural birth defects include cleft lip, heart defects, abnormal limbs, and neural tube defects. Functional birth defects are related to how a body part or body system works. Examples of functional problems caused by birth defects include nervous system or brain problems, sensory problems, metabolic disorders, and degenerative disorders.​​​

Who is at risk?​

Having one or more of these risks does not necessarily mean that an individual may have a pregnancy affected by a birth defect. However, the things that may increase the chances of having a baby with a birth defect includes:

  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking certain drugs during pregnancy.
  • Having certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy.
  • Taking certain medications, such as isotretinoin (a drug used to treat severe acne).
  • Having someone in your family with a birth defect. To learn more about your risk, you can talk with a clinical geneticist or genetic counselor.
  • Having certain infections during pregnancy such as Zika virus and cytomegalovirus
  • Being an older mother (older than 35). 
  • Experiencing fever greater than 101 degrees or having an elevated temperature due to heat exposure. 

Reduce your risk:

Not all birth defects can be prevented. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of birth defects before and during pregnancy.

  • Visit your primary care provider on a regular basis and begin prenatal care as soon as you believe you may be pregnant.
  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day, starting at least one month before getting pregnant. Prenatal vitamins and multivitamins contain folic acid, and do many fruits and vegetables. 
  • Do not drink alcohol, smoke, or use nicotine products.
  • Do not use marijuana or other drugs.
  • Know how to prevent infections during pregnancy, including washing your hands, preventing foodborne illness, and staying up to date with vaccinations.
  • If possible, be sure all medical conditions are under control before becoming pregnant. Some conditions, such as diabetes, can increase the risk for birth defects.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider about any medications you are taking or thinking about taking.
  • Avoid hot tubs, saunas, heating pads, or other environments that might cause overheating. If you have a fever, talk to your healthcare provider about how to safely treat it.