The human body is a remarkable thing. Just by getting pregnant in the first place, you’ve accomplished a great feat. Now it’s just a case of carrying on as normal, adapting to the rigours of pregnancy and then waiting to pop that little sprog out approximately nine months down the line. But there are certain things you need to be wary about, and bear more consideration now that you’re responsible for what is essentially another life – or soon-to-be life depending on how you look at it.
Your immune system is what keeps you standing; it’s your body’s first line of defence against foreign entities such as bugs, harmful bacteria and infections. When one of these invaders are recognized by the body, the immune response kicks in – a series of step leading to the destruction of this unwanted microorganism. When you fall pregnant, although your body is well-adapted and equipped to handle the carrying of a fetus, your fetus is essentially still recognized as a foreign object – an invading microorganism that’s growing inside the womb. That’s why your immune system is suppressed during pregnancy – to ensure your fetus isn’t attacked and rejected. But because your immune system has been dimmed down and isn’t on high alert, it makes your body – and therefore your fetus more susceptible to picking up infections – potentially deadly infections.
Despite the resiliency of the human body, there are some things that your body just can’t fight off. These are 15 infections that could pose dire consequences for your developing baby.
Chickenpox usually occurs at some time or other in a person’s life, usually during childhood, meaning the vast majority of expectant mothers will be immune to it. But for those few who have never had varicella or experienced the varicella zoster virus infection, getting infected with chickenpox during pregnancy sparks possible disaster for both mother and fetus.
Chickenpox is transmitted through contact, through touching the blisters of an infected individual, or through mucus and saliva, so coughing and sneezing can also transmit the virus. If you’ve never had chickenpox, the risks are more severe, although most mothers do make fully recoveries and give birth to normal, healthy babies.
In the worst case scenarios, your baby could develop fetal varicella syndrome – a condition that could cause your baby to be born with serious abnormalities. Depending on when you get the infection, it could also be deadly. Just before you’re due to give birth is the worst time to get chickenpox, as there’s a high risk of the subsequent infection being passed on to your fetus.
14 Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a form of herpes, but it’s also a common cause of cold sores and chickenpox.
CMV is transmitted and can be caught through body fluids; saliva, blood, sexual contact and even through tears. If you as a mother have never had CMV before, you won’t be immune and it therefore poses you and your developing baby a greater risk.
CMV is actually a common virus, but risk of infection can be reduced just by adhering to some basic health and cleanliness practices. Things like washing hands using hot, soapy water, and not kissing those infected can reduce the spread of infection; basically not exchanging body fluids.
CMV affects those with a weakened immune system, so mother and fetus. It can cause a number of problems for your unborn, including hepatitis, breathing and visual problems, which could occur when your baby is born, although many symptoms actually become apparent later in life.
Herpes is one STI you certainly don’t want to get – not that you’d want to get an STI at any other time – whilst you’re pregnant. I’m sure many of you know that STI’s, as the name suggests, are transmitted through intimate sexual contact, and aren’t very pleasant. But herpes is certainly one of the worst, because you may think everything’s cleared up and you’re on the road to recovery, then boom! it hit you again and can keep coming back because it’s a long-term chronic condition.
So how does herpes affect your fetus? Chances are if you had herpes before getting pregnant, it won’t really pose any problems to your developing baby, because you’ll already have all the protective antibodies that will keep you and your fetus safe. But get herpes during your pregnancy, and if you’ve never had it before, it’s another issue entirely. Because you wouldn’t have built up the protective antibodies yet, it’s highly likely that the viral infection will be passed on to your fetus, and it could have dire consequences – could cause a miscarriage.
12 Parvovirus B19 (slapped cheek syndrome)
Parvovirus B19 is a viral infection that usually manifests in young children and new-borns, but it can be transmitted to people of any age. It can look alarming and understandably it’s very distressing to young children. You can’t fail to notice someone with parvovirus B19; the rash is a pretty vivid red and blotchy – no wonder it’s aptly named the slapped cheek syndrome.
It’s very rare that a mother infected with parvovirus B19 will succumb to any long-lasting damage or that anything will happen to the unborn baby. Most women are immune to the virus, and this immunity will be passed on to the fetus. But in rare cases, it can be deadly and cause severe health problems which will only become apparent when your baby is born. Severe anemia is a possibility because parvovirus B19 affects fetal haemoglobin and red blood cells.
11 Infections transmitted by animals
Most of us have pets and many of us love cuddling and fussing over them. But pets, and other animals can carry a range of different viruses, bacteria, microbes and other foreign objects that normally won’t do you any harm, but when pregnant, can do a whole lot of damage.
Cats can cause toxoplasmosis, but that’s one serious infection that deserves its own section. There are other animals – not only pets, but also livestock – that can cause infections, such as sheep and pigs – not so much of a problem if you’re a city dweller, but something to be wary about if you live in or around a rural setting.
Sheep can carry and transmit chlamydia psittaci and can cause toxoplasmosis – potentially fatal as it could result in stillbirth or a miscarriage. Notify your doctor if you’ve been around sheep and then develop flu-like symptoms.
Pigs (live pigs) could cause hepatitis E which is transmitted through contact with their faeces; worst case scenarios after being infected with hep E are liver failure, fetal loss and mortality.
Just to reiterate, these risks are only from handling live livestock – eating cooked lamb or pork is totally fine.
10 Hepatitis B
Hep B is potentially life-threatening for anyone who’s unfortunate enough to become infected with the virus. It therefore poses an even greater risk to mothers and their unborn babies due to their immune systems being suppressed.
Hep B is an infection of the liver that’s spread through body fluids, and if left untreated, it can cause serious liver damage, both to mother and unborn child where the infection can pass into the amniotic fluid surrounding your fetus.
It can be pretty difficult to know whether or not you have hep B as you may not exhibit any of the common signs of the infection, or you may pass it off as something else and not get it checked out. Tiredness, weakness and nausea are all symptoms of hep B, but many people only take action when the infection becomes more serious and they reach the jaundice stage.
Most babies are immunised against the infection within the first twenty-four hours of being born; without this vaccine, if a mother is a carrier and has passed the infection on to her baby, there’ll be a strong risk of the baby having serious liver problems later in life. In the worst case scenario, it could actually be fatal for the fetus.
9 Hepatitis C
Hep C is another viral infection that affects the liver, and if you’re a carrier, there’s a risk of you passing the infection on to your fetus.
Hep C is transmitted from individual-to-individual through blood-to-blood contact, so sharing unsterilized needles – not that you should be doing so anyway – whilst you’re pregnant is a definite no no, and you should also steer clear of using another person’s razor – anything that may result in blood-to-blood contact. Unlike hep B, it’s extremely rare for hep c to be transmitted through the exchange of body fluids, so sex whilst you’re pregnant (protected) can still be on the cards!
Hep C can also be dangerous because it might already have caused significant irreversible damage before being noticed. Scarring of the liver, liver failure and even liver cancer could develop down the line if left untreated, and if you’re at this stage, the effects could have dire consequences for your fetus.
Many soon-to-be mothers who have HIV, are aware of it and are getting treatment, are far more likely to have a normal pregnancy compared to those who haven’t had treatment.
HIV weakens the immune system, meaning any mom-to-be who already has a weakened immune system due to being pregnant, and has HIV, is even more at risk of falling ill or being attacked by infections. This inevitably means there’s greater risks of complications occurring during pregnancy – risks to the fetus.
In today’s day and age, scientific advances and improvements in medication have meant that HIV is a manageable condition – manageable, not curable – so those infected will be able to live a relatively normal life. But for mothers, even those who are undergoing treatment for HIV, there’s no saying whether or not the infection will be passed on to the fetus. Once you give birth and your baby’s HIV test is negative, you won’t be able to breast feed as the infection can also be spread this way.
Expectant mothers with HIV unfortunately have an increased likelihood of having a miscarriage. The exact reasons are yet to be discovered, but it’s thought that miscarriages may occur due to vaginal infections, which due to the HIV, the body has trouble fighting off.
Rubella, also known as German measles, is an infection caused by the rubella virus, and can have catastrophic effects for a fetus if caught during pregnancy – specifically within the first four months of your pregnancy. It’s an extremely rare disease, especially in the majority of developed countries in which many people have had the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, but nevertheless, there are people who suffer from rubella.
You can catch rubella simply by breathing in the droplets of mucus expelled from an infected person when they sneeze or cough. It’s therefore transmitted in much the same way as a cold or flu is, and it’s therefore incredibly hard to avoid contracting rubella if you’re in a crowded place and in close vicinity to someone who’s infected.
Symptoms of rubella include; swollen glands and sore throat, so it may be hard to differentiate rubella from a common cold, but the rash is the warning sign you need to be aware of. If infected during the initial stages of your pregnancy, rubella could cause serious damage to your developing baby’s organs, and it could even cause stillbirth or miscarriage - congenital rubella syndrome.
Chorioamnionitis is very rare but is commonly associated with premature births.
It’s an infection that affects the tissue surrounding the fetus – the placental tissue – the tissue that allows for nutrient uptake from the fetus to occur and waste uptake from fetus to mother. The placental tissue is therefore vitally important to support the growth of the developing fetus, so if there’s an infection which attacks this tissue and messes up this process of waste management and nutrient uptake, the fetus won’t be able to develop – not normally anyway. Chorioamnionitis is also an infection of the amniotic fluid – the protective liquid in the amniotic sac.
Chorioamnionitis is caused by microorganisms – bacterial infections in the vagina. It can also be caused by the rupturing of membranes in the amniotic sac, what’s commonly known as ‘waters being broken’. This process usually occurs to mark the start of labor, but it some instances it can occur prematurely, allowing bacterial infections to spread up into the uterus. If the infection ascends into the uterus and remains untreated, it could cause pregnancy loss.
5 Group B Strep
About a third of the population are actually infected with GBS, but no need to be alarmed because for the vast majority of these carriers, the infection remains dormant and has absolutely no affect. It can be carried by men and women, people of all age groups, but in women the bacteria can be found in the vagina where the infection can spread and ascend into the uterus, causing serious problems to a fetus and pregnancy.
GBS can be caught by inhaling droplets from a cough or sneeze from an infected person. It can also be spread through skin contact, or through kissing – GBS is commonly found in the throat. It’s not yet known what causes GBS, but a pregnant woman could get infected during an early labor or if waters break early.
GBS can be passed on to the fetus, it can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or premature labor.
4 Streptococcal infections
We’ve just touched upon the dangers of GBS, the beta-haemolytic group of the streptococci infections, but there are also many other streptococcal infections that can pose serious risks to the wellbeing of a fetus. GAS – Group A Strep – infections are just as dangerous and can have equally catastrophic consequences for a mother and unborn baby.
GAS has been known to cause toxic shock syndrome, a life-threating illness that can, at its worst, lead to multiple organ failure, which will undoubtedly lead to the death of mother and fetus. We don’t want to be morbid here – just stating the worst case scenario. The majority of people with GAS get a rash and high fever, easily treatable with antibiotic therapy if caught early. GAS can also cause strong contractions of the uterus, or the infection could cause the placenta to break away from the womb, so if you’re pregnant and notice the signs – fever and flu-like symptoms – don’t wait to get checked out.
Cuddling up to a cat and giving your favourite pet a stroke on the sofa could be a great source of comfort to you during your pregnancy – could help you to de-stress and chill out a bit. We’re not telling you to stop, just leave the cleaning up after your cat bit to someone else; we’re sure you won’t mind. Being pregnant you have the perfect excuse not to have to deal with the unglamorous job of clearing out cat faeces, because toxoplasmosis is a very real risk and can potentially cause a host of problems to your fetus during your pregnancy.
The toxoplasma gondii parasite is transmitted through cat faeces and can cause an infection, although many people won’t even notice they’re infected because the body’s immune system is capable of fighting it off. But the immune systems of pregnant women are suppressed, so it’s a far more serious issue if a pregnant woman gets infected. The infection could spread to the fetus and cause serious complications, and it could cause stillbirth or miscarriage, so let someone else clean up after your feline friend.
2 Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
We’ve touched upon herpes and the problems that STI can cause during pregnancy, but there are a host of others that can be equally, if not more deadly to the wellbeing of a fetus.
Chlamydia for example is the most common STI that gets transmitted through sexual intercourse. You could be infected for months before the infection becomes apparent; pain when urinating, bleeding, unusual discharge, stomach pain etc. STIs can therefore be dangerous for a woman when pregnant, as it could become too late to treat before it’s passed on to the fetus and causes other complications. If this occurs it could give your soon-to-be baby conjunctivitis – an eye infection involving inflammation of the eye tissue, or pneumonia – a lung infection that can have a long-lasting impact on your baby’s health, even if the initial treatment is successful. STIs in general also increase the risk of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage, so ensure you get antibiotic treatment and notify your doctor as soon as the effects become noticeable.
1 Food-borne infections
Food-borne illnesses such as salmonella infection can wreak havoc for anyone at the best of times, but it can have a deadly effect for an unborn baby.
The obvious way of avoiding these infections is to use proper cooking practices and just to avoid certain food types altogether. Cooking food through properly thoroughly kills off food-borne pathogens that may be lingering about, and avoiding foods such as soft cheeses and deli meats will reduce the likelihood of you being infected with bacterial infections such as Listeria.
Food-borne infections could affect your baby in a range of different ways and can even cause the death of your fetus.
So you don’t have to do anything drastic to avoid getting infected with food-borne pathogens – just things that you should actually be doing anyway, pregnant or not. Cook food properly and avoid getting food from dubious food establishments; always stick to reputable eateries and you should be fine.