Smoking in pregnancy may deform fingers, toes, researchers find
and World Science staff
A pregnant woman’s cigarette smoking raises the risk that her newborn will have extra, webbed or missing fingers or toes, a study has found.
Although the overall risk of these abnormalities in fingers and toes is relatively low, just half a pack of cigarettes per day increases the risk to the baby by 29 percent, compared to non-smokers, the study found. Because limbs develop very early in pregnancy, the effect may occur even before a woman knows she is pregnant.
“We found that the more a woman smoked, the higher the risk became that the baby would have these defects,” said study leader Benjamin Chang. He and co-author Li-Xing Man, both of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed the records of more than 6.8 million live births listed in the U.S. Natality database from 2001 and 2002. It was the largest study of its kind, covering 84 percent of U.S. births.
The researchers divided the study population into four groups: non-smokers, those who smoked one to ten cigarettes daily, 11 to 20 cigarettes daily, and 21 or more per day.
Women who smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day during pregnancy were 78 percent more likely to have babies with digital anomalies, they found. Women who smoked up to half a pack a day were 29 percent more likely to have babies with finger anomalies.
Of the total 6.8 million births, the researchers found 5,171 children born with digital anomalies whose mother smoked during pregnancy.
“Overall, the likelihood of having a digital anomaly is relatively low, about one in 2,000 to 2,500 live births, and compared to other public health issues, is a very small problem,” said Chang. “Usually surgery can restore full or nearly full function to children with these anomalies.”
The deformations include polydactyly (presence of more than five fingers or toes on a hand or foot), adactyly (the absence of fingers or toes) and syndactyly (fused or webbed fingers or toes).
Limbs start to develop between four and eight weeks of gestation and advance from a tiny nub to nearly-fully formed fingers and toes. Many women only learn they’re pregnant during this period.
Missing digits are twice as likely to occur in boys and are more common in Caucasians than African Americans; more than five digits on hands and feet is 10 times more common in African Americans and only slightly more common in boys, the researchers said. Nevertheless, the majority of isolated congenital digital anomalies occur spontaneously without any family history.
Although the current study does not prove that prenatal exposure to cigarettes causes digital anomalies, said Chang, there is a strong association. “Although the overall risk of having these defects is rather small, the increase in risk posed by tobacco exposure has the potential to affect thousands of children,” he added.
The study appears in the January issue of the research journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
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