Infections that can be dangerous during pregnancy

Infections are caused by either bacteria or viruses. Bacterial infections, such as bacterial vaginosis are usually treated with antibiotics. Viral infections, such as chickenpox, can’t be treated with antibiotics, but there are ways to prevent them in pregnancy.

Some of the infections that can be dangerous during pregnancy include

Most common infections that occur during pregnancy, such as those of the skin, urinary tract, and respiratory tract, cause no serious problems. However, some infections can be passed to the fetus before or during birth and damage the fetus or cause a miscarriage or premature birth. Also, whether taking antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs is safe during pregnancy is a concern.

Sexually transmitted diseases that can cause problems include the following:

  • Chlamydial infection may cause preterm labor and premature rupture of the membranes. It can also cause eye inflammation (conjunctivitis) in newborns.
  • Gonorrhea can also cause conjunctivitis in newborns.
  • Syphilis can be transmitted from a mother to the fetus through the placenta. Syphilis in the fetuscan cause several birth defects and cause problems in the newborn. Pregnant women are routinely tested for syphilis early in the pregnancy. Usually treatment of syphilis during pregnancy cures both mother and fetus.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is transmitted to the fetus in about one fourth to one third of pregnancies if women who have the infection are not treated. Experts recommend that women with HIV infection take antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy. If women take a combination of antiretroviral drugs, the risk of transmitting HIV to the fetus can be reduced to as low as 1%. For some women with HIV infection, cesarean delivery, planned in advance, may further reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby. Pregnancy does not seem to speed up the progression of HIV infection in women.
  • Genital herpes can be transmitted to the baby during a vaginal delivery. Babies who are infected with herpes can develop a life-threatening brain infection called herpes encephalitis. A herpes infection in babies can also damage other internal organs and cause skin and mouth sores, permanent brain damage, or even death. If women develop herpes sores in the genital area late in pregnancy or if herpes first develops during late pregnancy, women are usually advised to give birth by cesarean delivery, so that the virus is not transmitted to the baby. If no sores are present and herpes develops earlier, the risk of transmission is very low, and vaginal delivery is possible.
  • Zika virus infection in a pregnant woman can cause the baby to have a small head (microcephaly). The head is small because it does not develop normally. Zika virus infection can also cause eye abnormalities in the baby. The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, but it can also be spread through sexual intercourse, through blood transfusions, and from a pregnant woman to her baby before or during birth.

Infections that are not transmitted sexually and that can cause problems include the following:

  • German measles (rubella) can cause problems, particularly inadequate growth before birth (small for gestational age), cataracts, birth defects of the heart, hearing loss, and delayed development.
  • Cytomegalovirus infection can cross the placenta and damage the fetus’s liver and brain, and the fetus may not grow as much as expected.
  • Chickenpox (varicella) increases the risk of a miscarriage. It may damage the eyes of the fetus or cause defects of the limbs, blindness, or intellectual disability. The fetus’s head may be smaller than normal (microcephaly).
  • Toxoplasmosis, a protozoal infection, may cause a miscarriage, death of the fetus, and serious birth defects.
  • Listeriosis, a bacterial infection, increases the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage, and stillbirth. Newborns may have the infection, but symptoms may be delayed until several weeks after birth.
  • Bacterial infections of the vagina (such as bacterial vaginosis) may lead to preterm labor or premature rupture of the membranes containing the fetus.
  • Urinary tract infections increase the risk of preterm labor and premature rupture of the membranes containing the fetus.

Hepatitis may be transmitted sexually but is often transmitted in other ways. Thus, it is not typically considered a sexually transmitted disease. Hepatitis in a pregnant woman can increase the risk of premature birth. It can also be transmitted from the mother to the baby during delivery, causing problems.

How to prevent infections in pregnancy

There are some simple steps you can take to avoid getting an infection in pregnancy:

  • wash your hands regularly with soap and water
  • try to avoid people who are unwell
  • have all the vaccinations you are offered in pregnancy
  • don’t change or touch dirty cat litter or contaminated soil
  • make sure all your meals are properly cooked, especially meat
  • avoid unpasteurised milk and foods made with it
  • avoid travelling to areas where you could catch the Zika virus until after your pregnancy
  • talk to your GP, doctor or midwife if you think you are at high risk of infection
  • get tested for sexually transmitted infections
  • avoid sharing food, cutlery, drinking glasses or dummies with young children
  • contact your GP, doctor or midwife if you have been in contact with someone with an infection, even if you don’t have any symptoms
  • contact your GP, doctor or midwife straight away if you have any symptoms of an infection.

If you do get an infection during pregnancy, contact your health care provider about how best to protect you and your baby. Only some medicines are safe during pregnancy.

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