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Pregnancy is perhaps the most wonderful phase in a woman’s life. She takes utmost care of her health, nutrition, lifestyle and surroundings and is cared for and pampered by everyone around her. However, pregnancy comes with its share of uneasiness, and being ill in this phase can leave you feeling extremely tired.
Measures have to be taken to prevent an infection during this beautiful journey. This article will help you to understand these infections and what can be done to avoid them.
Why Pregnant Women are More Prone to Infection?
Our body has a natural defence mechanism to shield us from attacks by bacteria and viruses. Antibodies are produced by the body to fight these infection-causing agents, but sometimes the body fails to make sufficient antibodies making us susceptible to infections.
Pregnancy infections occur mainly because the woman’s immunity is lowered making her an easy prey. During pregnancy, the immune system adapts to protect both the mother as well as the baby. Some part of this defence mechanism is enhanced while some gets suppressed as it helps create a balance. However, the mother also goes through a surge of hormonal and physiological changes making her even more vulnerable to catching infections. During conception, labour and delivery, a woman’s body is exposed to a lot of infections which add up to her vulnerability.
It is very important to maintain a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy in order to have a healthy you and a healthy baby.
List of Infections That Can Affect a Pregnant Woman
Infections which are contracted during pregnancy are complicated as they affect not only the mother but in some cases the unborn child too.
Thus, knowing about these infections is crucial and their timely cure can be life-saving. Here are some infections you need to guard yourself and your baby against.
Hepatitis B virus affects the liver, causing toxins to accumulate in the body. A pregnant woman is tested for Hepatitis B on her first prenatal visit. Carriers may show no symptoms, but can transfer the virus to the baby during delivery. The virus spreads through sexual intercourse with an infected person without any protection or even via direct contact with infected blood. The Hepatitis B test is crucial to plan the precautions to be taken during birth and after, in order to protect the baby from contracting the virus.
Symptoms of this infection are abdominal pain, vomiting, jaundice, joint pain and appetite loss.
If your test result is negative, you are given Hepatitis B immunisation which is safe to be administered during pregnancy. Further, your baby is given the immunisation 12 months after he/she is born. Some babies, who are at a risk of contracting the infection, need a dose of Hepatitis B immunoglobin (HBIG) at birth.
Hepatitis C virus also affects the liver. Though an infected person may show no symptoms, the sign to look out for is nausea which is also common in early pregnancy making it difficult to diagnose the infection. The virus is transmitted by blood transfusion, direct contact with blood or through medical or dental treatment at places where infected patients visit. Infection can be transferred to baby from pregnant mother at the time of birth.
Urinary Tract Infection
A Urinary Tract Infection or UTI is an infection in the urinary tract caused by bacteria that goes into the urethra and up from the skin, rectum or vagina. The infection can affect bladder (cystitis), kidneys (pyelonephritis) or be asymptomatic bacteriuria (bacteria in the urinary tract with no symptoms). Pyelonephritis and asymptomatic bacteriuria can cause preterm labour and low-birth-weight baby.
UTI is characterised by pain or a burning sensation while urinating, cloudy or foul-smelling or even bloody urine, a frequent urge to urinate even when there is no urine in the bladder, and pain in the lower abdomen.
Drinking plenty of fluids, not holding on when there is an urge to urinate, maintaining proper hygiene and wiping from front to back after visiting the toilet are some of the measures that can be taken to avoid this infection. Treatment is done by administering low dose antibiotics prescribed by the doctor.
Vaginal yeast infections are caused due to increased levels of estrogen and progesterone hormones. It causes burning in vagina and is characterised by a whitish yellow discharge. Doctors usually prescribe a medicated ointment to treat it.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Pregnant women are highly prone to contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) which usually have no defined symptoms . The most common type of STD is Chlamydia. Babies of mothers having STD are prone to low birth weight. The mother may also be at risk of pre-mature birth gestational bleeding, pre-term delivery or miscarriage. There are high chances of transmitting infection to the baby during birth which can be timely treated with antibiotics.
If you already have had an episode of chicken pox or if you have been immunised, then it is quite likely you will not contract chicken pox again. To be on a safer side, a blood test can be performed to check if you are immune to chicken pox.
However, in case you come down with chicken pox in the first or second trimester, there is a risk for congenial varicella syndrome in your baby. It is characterised by physical and mental disabilities. Ultrasound is performed to check for any defects in the baby. If you are in your third trimester when you get infected, then you are lucky as antibodies are delivered to the baby through the placenta and the risk of them being exposed to the infection is lowered.
Chicken pox is characterised by mild flu followed by an eruption of red bumps on the body. Consult your doctor immediately in case you observe the symptoms to avail proper treatment.
German Measles or Rubella
Contracting Rubella in the first four months of pregnancy can mean serious damage to the baby which include the likes of a brain and heart defects, hearing loss and cataract. It can even lead to miscarriage.
Symptoms of Rubella include mild flu, fever, red-pink rash, swollen lymph node, sore and red eyes and painful joints. In case of suspicion of Rubella, get medical advice as soon as possible. Although a screening test is done during the fourth month of pregnancy to detect the virus, however, it is best to get all necessary check up done before conceiving to get vaccinated against the disease.
Group B Streptococcus
Group B Streptococcus is a life threatening infection in newborns that can have adverse effects on the mother as well. During pregnancy, GBS may cause bladder infection, still birth or endometritis (a painful disorder in which the tissue that usually grows inside the uterus tends to grow outside). Most of the time, the infected person may not exhibit any symptoms, and hence, a screening test is a must around the 35-37th week of gestation. Chances of this infection affecting the baby increase in case water breaks early, mother has fever during delivery or in case of premature labour. Antibiotics are prescribed to prevent it.
Bacterial vaginosis is caused due to an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina. When the level of lactobacilli- an essential bacteria in the vagina- goes down, this infection develops and leads to low birth weight of the baby, pre-term labour or second trimester miscarriage.
Any grey or white discharge from vagina accompanied by a fishy smell especially after sex and a burning sensation while urinating may indicate an infection.
It is treated using safe antibiotics. Using any product that disturbs the balance of bacteria such as hygiene sprays in the genitals should be avoided. Seek your doctor’s advice for the course of treatment.
Some of the viral infections that affect pregnant women and their babies are Toxoplasmosis, Rubella, CMV, Herpes, Fifth Disease, varicella-zoster virus (VZV), West Nile Virus, measles virus, enterovirus, adenovirus, HIV and Zika virus. Viruses can be transferred from mother to baby through placenta, through blood and vaginal fluids during birth or while breastfeeding. They can cause congenital defects in babies, stillbirth or even result in death of the mother.
Some of these have been elaborately discussed in this article.
Fifth Disease (Parvovirus)
Fifth disease is caused by parvovirus B19V. It usually occurs in small children and is characterised by red rashes on the cheek which gives it the name “slapped cheek disease”. Other symptoms include a runny nose, flu and achiness. For a normal person, it does not pose much of a threat, but in individuals with some irregularities in RBC, it can be life-threatening as it inhibits production of RBC.
Infection is spread through saliva and nasal secretions. In pregnancy, it can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, cardiac issues in foetus and foetal anaemia. If contracted in the second trimester, it can lead to a condition called hydrops which marks an increased amount of fluid in tissues.
If contracted during pregnancy, ultrasounds are done to check fluid levels in the foetus.
A mosquito-borne viral infection, chikungunya can be transferred to your baby during birth. Chikungunya is characterised by swollen joints, headache or muscle pain in adults. It causes difficulty in feeding, skin problems and fever in newborns. Though there is no medication for this illness, drinking plenty of water and taking rest helps to soothe the symptoms.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a double-stranded herpes virus and is spread through contact of body fluids. Children can develop CMV at birth and show signs like unusually small head, abnormality of nervous system, enlarged spleen and liver and jaundice. Some babies are stillborn while some suffer serious visual, auditory and neural issues. Good hygiene practices help to avoid this infection and if infected during pregnancy, ultrasounds are done to check the well being of the baby.
Another mosquito-borne viral infection, dengue fever causes pre-term labour, low birth weight and stillbirth if transmitted during labour to child. Some symptoms of dengue include high fever, severe headache, joint pain, muscle and bone pain and mild bleeding from nose or gums. To prevent this, a pregnant mother should take measures to keep away from mosquitoes- the carriers of the disease.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) affects the immune system of an infected person. A confidential screening test is performed as a part of pre-natal examinations and counselling is carried out for the expecting mother. The most fatal stage of this illness is Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)- a case where the patient is tested positive for carrying HIV. A pregnant mother may transfer the virus to her baby during pregnancy, birth or even while breastfeeding. Baby born to an HIV positive mother undergoes a screening test at time of the birth. This is a life-threatening illness and hence timely measures have to be taken if the mother gets infected during pregnancy so as to give birth a healthy baby.
Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus transmitted through genital contact or oral sex with a partner having cold sores or oral herpes. Symptoms include red sores on vagina or vulva which turn into blisters and rupture to become painful sores later on. In early pregnancy, herpes can be treated, but in the final stage of pregnancy, a C section is performed to avoid infection in the new born baby.
Listeriosis is contracted from food containing the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Although a rare disease, it affects people with reduced immunity thus making pregnant women susceptible. It can infect the amniotic fluid and placenta causing still birth or pre-term labour.
Caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, the risk of this infection being transmitted from mother to unborn child increases as pregnancy advances, though, if it is transmitted in the first trimester it becomes more severe. It is transmitted by having undercooked meat or food, by handling contaminated soil or through cat litter. It cannot be transmitted from one person to another by any means other than from mother to child during birth or through organ transplant or blood transfusion.
Trichomoniasis or trich is caused by a microscopic parasite which travels into the host body through body fluids and is associated with causing pre-term birth and pre-term rupture of the membranes. It can cause vagina to become red or itchy accompanied by greenish or yellowish discharge with a frothy appearance and foul smell. Antibiotics are prescribed to newborns to avoid infection getting to the child.
Zika virus can be transmitted by mosquito or can be sexually transmitted too. During pregnancy, it causes microcephaly (abnormally small head) in child. In later years, it can cause visual, auditory and speech impairment, poor growth and even seizures. The best way to avoid Zika is to avoid travelling to places where Zika virus is prevalent.
Infections Transmitted By Animals
Toxoplasmosis is an infection which is caused by contact with cat litter. Similarly, Chlamydia psittaci is an organism present in sheep or lamb that is known to cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Lamb and sheep are also carriers of toxoplasma. Milking and handling new born lamb should be avoided. Pigs are source of Hepatitis E and contact with pigs or pig faeces is highly risky in pregnancy.
Prevention and Treatment for Infections in Pregnancy?
Early treatment and measures are required in pregnancy to ensure a healthy baby. A to-be mom has to take the following measures:
- Ensure all required immunisation has been done before and during pregnancy.
- Perform tests to detect infections (if any) to receive timely treatment.
- Wash hands regularly with soap and warm water.
- Avoid contact with infected people.
- Always consume pasteurised milk.
- Cook food thoroughly, especially meat.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Maintain a healthy and a well balanced diet.
You may not always be aware of the presence of an infection hence it is essential that attention is paid to small changes in your body so that you can give the best protection for that precious life in your womb. Be ready to embrace motherhood and all the little gifts it has in store for you.
Also read: Torch Infection During Pregnancy