During pregnancy you may be more susceptible to certain infections, which can develop into severe complications if left untreated. The good news is that most infections will not harm the baby and usually clear up quickly once appropriate treatment has been sought.
If you think you might have even a minor infection during pregnancy your doctor or midwife as soon as possible, as certain infections may need to be treated or assessed slightly differently from those in non-pregnant women.
GR Dr Roger Henderson outlines the most common infections during pregnancy, how they might affect the baby, and how to prevent them from developing:
These are perhaps the most common type of infection seen in pregnancy, and come in two basic forms – women who have symptoms and women who don't.
• Silent (symptom-free) bladder infections
Silent bladder infections are common, occurring in about 6 per cent of pregnant women.
Cystitis, comes with symptoms that include constantly feeling that you need to urinate, discomfort in the bladder, having to urinate more frequently and pain with urination.
If you develop either type of bladder infection, your doctor will usually treat it with antibiotics, because if left untreated a bladder infection can progress into a kidney infection, also known as pyelonephritis.
Chickenpox is due to a virus, called the varicella zoster virus. The first time someone comes down with an infection caused by this virus, usually in childhood, they will get chickenpox. Chickenpox is pretty rare in adults, and pregnant women stand no greater risk of contracting this virus than non-pregnant people.
Chickenpox can cause three potential problems during pregnancy:
• Flu-like symptoms
If you get chickenpox during pregnancy you will typically experience flu-like symptoms a skin rash characterised by red blistering spots. This normally requires no treatment but in very rare circumstances, pneumonia may develop two to six days after the rash appears. If you have chickenpox, and you develop symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath, tell your doctor.
• Congenital varicella syndrome
If you get chickenpox during the first four months of pregnancy, the baby has a very small chance of developing the infection, too, leading to a condition known as congenital varicella syndrome.
With this syndrome, the foetus can have scarring (the same kinds of scars that little kids get on their bodies from chickenpox), some abnormal development of the limbs, problems with growth, and developmental delays. However, congenital varicella syndrome is fortunately very rare, occurring in less than one per cent of cases in which the infection occurs in the first trimester, and two per cent if in the early second trimester.
• Varicella infection
If you develop chickenpox from five days before to five days after giving birth, the baby is at risk of developing a serious varicella infection in the newborn period. The same varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox can also produce a recurrent form of shingles, but most babies born to pregnant women who develop shingles are completely normal.
Rubella (German measles)
The rubella virus causes German measles, which is the only type of measles that can have any significant impact on pregnancy. If you develop rubella within the first trimester (the first 13 weeks of pregnancy), your baby has about a 20 per cent chance of developing congenital rubella syndrome.
The chance of developing this syndrome, however, varies even within the first trimester from the first month to the third month. Fortunately, acute rubella infection during pregnancy is extremely uncommon, mainly due to routine rubella immunisation in the early teenage years.
The common cold
This is perhaps the least worrying of all infections although it's the most common. Most people get a cold once to twice a year, so the fact that most women get one during pregnancy isn't surprising.
Nothing about pregnancy makes you more vulnerable to a cold virus, but the fatigue and congestion that go along with pregnancy can make a cold seem worse.
The common cold is perfectly harmless to the developing baby. Because there's no cure for the common cold, the only option is to treat the symptoms.
Common cold treatment tips
✔️ Drink lots of fluids. All viral illnesses cause dehydration, and being pregnant makes the problem worse so drink plenty of water, juice, or fizzy drinks when you have a cold or the flu, but stay away from milk.
✔️ Try using steam inhalation. Inhaling steam for colds and coughs may be the oldest remedy in the book, but it works. Fill a bowl with boiling water, and add a few drops of decongestant oil such as menthol. Then sit down in front of the bowl with a towel covering your head and the bowl, for about 15 minutes.
✔️ Eat lots of citrus fruits. These are high in vitamin C, which has been found in some studies to reduce the duration of colds
✔️ Take paracetamol in the recommended dose – this will bring your high temperature down as well as helping with the aches and pains that accompany a cold. Paracetamol is also perfectly safe to take in pregnancy at the standard adult dose, so don't be scared to take it.
✔️ You can use the same treatments for the common cold and for influenza infections. If you get the flu while you're pregnant, you're likely to have the same experience as when you're not pregnant, and the treatment is the same.
Herpes simplex virus
Herpes is a common virus that infects the mouth, throat, skin and genital tract. If you have a history of thrush, the good news is that the infection poses no risk to the developing baby.
The main concern with herpes in pregnancy is that you may have an active genital herpes lesion when you go into labour or when your water breaks. If you do have a lesion there is a small risk that you transmit the infection to the baby as he or she passes through the birth canal.
If it's your first herpes infection, the chance that the baby contracts the virus is greater than if you've had herpes before, because you have no antibodies to the virus. It's important that if you have a history of genital herpes, tell your doctor or midwife at your first booking appointment.
Women with a history of recurrent herpes may lower their chance of having an active herpes infection at delivery by taking a medication called aciclovir in the last month of pregnancy – if this applies to you, discuss this with your doctor.
Tummy bugs (gastroenteritis)
A tummy bug can occur at any time, whether or not you're pregnant. Symptoms of gastroenteritis include stomach cramps, fever, diarrhoea and nausea, with or without vomiting, and they last anywhere from 24 to 72 hours but the viruses that cause gastroenteritis usually don't harm your baby.
If you get a tummy bug, make sure that you drink plenty of liquids, as dehydration can lead to premature contractions and contributes to fatigue and dizziness.
Take care of yourself in the same way you would if you weren't pregnant. If your symptoms persist for more than 72 hours, call your doctor.
Bacteria and other organisms can breed quickly in the vagina, where the warm and moist conditions are perfect for them to grow and reproduce, but some vaginal infections, such as thrush, become more common when you're pregnant.
This yeast infection is very common in pregnancy because the large amounts of oestrogen hormone that circulate in the bloodstream during pregnancy promote the growth of yeast in the vagina. Symptoms of an infection are vaginal itching and a thick, whitish-yellow discharge. However, many women get infections without any symptoms.
The only treatment usually needed is a short course of vaginal suppositories or creams – talk to your GP or pharmacist for more advice.
Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection and often comes with no symptoms, meaning you may be affected for years without knowing it. If you're found to have chlamydia, whether or not you're pregnant, your doctor will prescribe a medication to treat the infection.
Chlamydia can be passed to your newborn during vaginal delivery, increasing the chance that the baby will develop conjunctivitis (an eye infection) or, less likely, pneumonia.