Women, Alcohol and Birth Control

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues new recommendation for sexually active women to not drink when off birth control


Alcohol and pregnancy don't -- and shouldn’t -- mix.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new recommendations for women of childbearing age. The CDC says women who aren't using birth control shouldn't drink alcohol because of the risk of exposing the fetus.

Patricia Green, Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH), led the team that created the report. Dr. Green is an epidemiologist at the Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, CDC.

Alcohol is known to cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which can affect children's growth and brain development. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome may have lifelong disabilities.

The risk to the fetus is greatest during the first few weeks after conception. However, the CDC says there is no safe amount of alcohol for a woman who is pregnant.

According to the CDC, three out of four women who plan to get pregnant don't stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control. Moreover, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Most women don't even know they are pregnant until four to six weeks into the pregnancy.

Alcoholic abstinence, according to the CDC, is the only way to protect the baby.

An article in the New York Times notes that the response to the CDC recommendation has in many cases been negative.

However, the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco, thinks it's a great idea.

The article notes Dr. DeFrancesco commented in a statement, “In many cases of unintended pregnancy, women inadvertently expose their fetuses to alcohol and its teratogenic effects prior to discovering that they are pregnant. This is just another reason why it’s so important that health care providers counsel women about how to prevent unintended pregnancy through use of the contraceptive method that is right for them.”

To develop this report, CDC scientists analyzed data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth. The data indicated more than 3 million women were at risk of exposing their babies to alcohol if they became pregnant.

Coleen Boyle, PhD, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, noted in the CDC press release, “It is critical for healthcare providers to assess a woman’s drinking habits during routine medical visits; advise her not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or sexually active and not using birth control; and recommend services if she needs help to stop drinking.”

CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD, said in the same release,“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant. About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking. The risk is real. Why take the chance?”

The report was published in the February 5 issue of the CDC's Vital Signs.

No outside funding was received for the report and none of the authors expressed a conflict of interest.