The maternal and fetal physiologic effects of nicotine

Semin Perinatol. 1996 Apr;20(2):115-26. doi: 10.1016/s0146-0005(96)80079-6.


The effects of nicotine are seen in every trimester of pregnancy, from increased spontaneous abortions in the first trimester, to increased premature delivery rates and decreased birth weights in the final trimester. The birth weight of a baby is dependent on two factors: the gestational age of the fetus at the time of delivery and the rate of fetal growth. Nicotine has been shown to affect both of these factors. Carbon monoxide, also found in tobacco, forms carboxyhemoglobin, which inhibits the release of oxygen into fetal tissues. Nicotine readily gains access to the fetal compartment via the placenta, with fetal concentrations generally 15% higher than maternal levels. The primary metabolite of nicotine, cotinine, has a half-life of 15 to 20 hours and serum concentrations that are 10-fold higher than nicotine; thus, cotinine provides a better index of nicotine exposure because of its longer half-life. Nicotine concentrates in fetal blood, amniotic fluid, and breastmilk. The fetus and neonate may also have environmental tobacco exposure that may be significant. In animal models and humans, nicotine increases maternal blood pressure and heart rate, with a concomitant reduction in uterine blood flow. An increase in fetal heart rate is also seen, which is thought to be caused by catecholamine release. The impact of nicotine on the respiratory and central nervous system is also reviewed. In conclusion, the physiological effect of tobacco on fetal growth seems to be a culmination of both the vasoconstrictive effects of nicotine on the uterine and potentially the umbilical artery and the effects on oxygenation by carboxyhemoglobin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Nicotine / adverse effects*
  • Nicotine / pharmacokinetics
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Regional Blood Flow / drug effects
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Uterus / blood supply


  • Nicotine