Pregnant women are at a higher risk of getting an infection and passing it to their baby because their immune systems get suppressed. However, there are many ways to prevent infections during pregnancy.
Pregnancy can be an exciting time of rapid growth and development. However, it also represents a time in a woman’s life when she is more vulnerable to risks in her everyday environment. Pregnant women are more likely than non-pregnant women to get infections and become sicker when they do because pregnancy suppresses the immune system. When a mother gets an infection during her pregnancy, such as a viral or bacterial illness, she is also at risk of passing the infection along to her baby.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are committed to supporting women and their infants throughout the pregnancy journey. February is International Prenatal Infection Prevention Awareness Month, a health holiday that draws attention to the fact that many illnesses contracted during pregnancy are avoidable if you can take the correct precautions.
Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe from infections during pregnancy.
Infections and Pregnancy
When you’re pregnant, there can be a lot of information to take in all at once. There are many new behaviors to adopt—such as avoiding hot tubs and limiting caffeine intake—and some may make more sense than others. Many of these behaviors are recommended to avoid a prenatal infection, having profound consequences for yourself and your baby, depending on the type.
If you’ve been scratching your head about some of the prenatal guidance you’ve received (or even guidance you’ve been given before conception), it may boil down to infection risk. Here’s a primer on some of the more common infections in pregnancy and what you can do to avoid them.
The most recent Zika virus outbreak started in April of 2015, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to caution people against traveling to areas of high Zika activity before conception and during pregnancy. Zika virus is spread by mosquitos, and when an infected mother passes it to her child during pregnancy, the child can be born with a birth defect known as microcephaly, as well as severe brain defects. Many women who contract the Zika virus have such mild symptoms that they don’t realize they’re infected.
To avoid the Zika virus, follow the CDC’s recommended travel restrictions and timelines—and if you must travel to a Zika endemic area, make sure to wear mosquito repellent, use a bed net, and use condoms to avoid potential transmission of the infection from your partner.
Cytomegalovirus is a common virus in people of all ages— the CDC notes that one in three children have been infected with CMV by age 5. Most people can clear the virus on their own without any problem. The virus can be spread in bodily fluids such as saliva and urine, and it is transmitted more commonly when you come into direct contact with the saliva or urine of a baby or young child. However, when you’re pregnant, infection with CMV can cause hearing loss in your unborn child, as well as microcephaly, intellectual disability, seizures, visual problems, and coordination problems.
To avoid CMV, make sure to wash your hands and avoid contact with bodily fluids, especially those of young children.
Listeria is a bacterium that has been linked to many different foods. Infection with listeria can cause fever, chills, muscle aches, stomach aches, diarrhea, headache, neck stiffness, or confusion—however, most of the time, people with a listeria infection don’t know that they’re infected because they don’t have any symptoms. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pregnant women are ten times more likely to get listeria than non-pregnant adults. In pregnant women, listeria can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, low birth weight, death of the infant or mother, a wide range of birth defects, and brain infection.
To avoid listeria, follow your healthcare provider’s instructions about foods to avoid during pregnancy—such as ready-to-eat deli meat, unpasteurized milk products, and soft cheeses, among others—as these are more likely to harbor listeria. The FDA also notes that you should keep your refrigerator set at below 40° Fahrenheit, don’t eat expired foods or foods that have been left sitting out, and clean your refrigerator regularly.
You may have heard that pregnant women should not touch or change dirty cat litter, and this is true. The reasoning is that cat litter can contain a parasite known as Toxoplasma that can cause a serious infection during pregnancy. Babies born to mothers who develop toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, or just before becoming pregnant, can develop symptoms such as blindness, mental disability, eye damage, or brain damage.
To avoid contracting toxoplasmosis, avoid changing cat litters, if possible. If you can’t avoid it, make sure to wear gloves and wash your hands with soap and water afterward. The CDC also has several other helpful tips, including where to keep your cat, and what to feed your cat to minimize your risk of the disease.
Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis (LCM)
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM) is an illness caused by a virus transmitted to humans by rodents, such as house mice. When you contract LCM during pregnancy, your baby is at risk of conditions such as congenital hydrocephalus, chorioretinitis, and mental retardation.
To avoid infection with LCM, the CDC recommends having a pest control service eliminate pests in your home. Additionally, if you have a rodent as a pet, it’s advised to have the rodent stay out of your home while you are pregnant—see if you can find someone to care for it until you deliver.
Group B Strep
The bacterium known as group B Streptococcus, or group B strep, is commonly found in the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. When people have group B strep, they usually have no symptoms—however, the bacteria can cause a wide range of infections in immunosuppressed people. A group B strep infection is very common during pregnancy the CDC notes that about 25 percent of women carry group B strep but have no symptoms. Babies born to mothers with group B Strep have a higher likelihood of severe infections, pneumonia, and meningitis.
To avoid passing a group B strep infection to your child, make sure to follow your healthcare provider’s OB care plan, which will include a group B strep test near the end of your pregnancy. If you are found to be group B strep positive, you can receive antibiotic treatment during labor.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
When you’re pregnant or during the delivery of your child, you can pass along any sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that you may be harboring. Many STIs have no symptoms, so you may be unaware that you have an infection—why prenatal and perinatal medical screening is so important.
Sexually transmitted infections that can be passed from mother to child include the following:
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
- Hepatitis B
- Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)
Mothers who have an STI are more likely to have a premature baby and to have an infection of the uterus. Additionally, because young babies do not have a robust immune system of their own, these infections can cause severe problems in fetuses and newborns. To avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection during pregnancy, make sure to use condoms and talk with your partner about the risk of STIs during pregnancy. It is also important to visit with a women’s healthcare provider before conception, or as soon as you know you’re pregnant so that you can be screened for STIs and treated as soon as possible if needed.
More Ways to Stay Healthy and Avoid Infections During Pregnancy
It can be intimidating to learn about all the dangers lurking in your environment when you’re pregnant. However, there are many tools at your disposal that can keep you safe.
One of the single most effective things that you can do to avoid getting an infection while pregnant (and outside of pregnancy, as well), is to be vigilant about washing your hands. When you’re pregnant, washing your hands after being around young children, handling pets, traveling in public, or touching food can go a long way in helping you avoid infection.
One of the other most effective ways to prevent prenatal infections is to stay up-to-date with vaccinations. In addition to their childhood vaccines, pregnant women should also get an influenza shot (to protect against “the flu”), and well as a Tdap shot, for protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. There are certain shots that you should not receive while pregnant, such as the MMR shot, so make sure to discuss your full vaccination profile and pregnancy status with your healthcare provider.
How to Learn More About Prenatal Health
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are humbled to be your go-to resource when it comes to learning about prenatal infections, as well as all matters of women’s health. We understand that pregnancy can be a time of great anticipation but also great anxiety, and we are here to help guide you, keep you safe, and alleviate your fears.
To learn more, contact our obstetrics and gynecology team at Lompoc Valley Medical Center today.