Pregnancy Risk Factors: Infections

How infections affect you and your baby, and how to stay safe

Pregnancy is a time when your body does amazing things. But, while your body is hard at work growing a baby, you’re also at an increased risk of getting sick. Infections are common during pregnancy, ranging from a common cold to severe illnesses.

Some of the most common infections during pregnancy include:

Other infections are not common but can be serious, including:

  • Listeria
  • Hepatitis

Knowing which infections can pose a risk for your pregnancy helps you make a plan to prevent and treat them as you look forward to welcoming your baby.

What causes infection during pregnancy?

Pregnancy and infections often go hand in hand. Typically, doctors chalk this up to changes in the vaginal flora, which is why yeast infections are more common during pregnancy. Luckily, yeast infections don’t typically pose a risk to your pregnancy. However, clearing up this infection can restore your comfort.

Sometimes women enter pregnancy already carrying an infection. In fact, the CDC estimates that about 1 in 5 women between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes. If you have an outbreak at delivery, your doctor might recommend a c-section to prevent your baby from contracting the virus. They may also prescribe medication toward the end of your pregnancy to suppress an outbreak.

Pregnant women can also catch the common cold, the flu or COVID-19. If you catch one of these illnesses, you’ll need to monitor your symptoms to make sure they don’t become severe. An extremely high fever could impact your developing baby. You’ll also want to watch out for respiratory issues that could affect how much oxygen gets to the fetus.

Why are infections risky for pregnant women?

For many years, it was thought that pregnancy weakened a woman’s immune system, but physicians now know that an immunological transformation occurs when a woman gets pregnant. This process diverts a large portion of a mother’s immune system toward supporting her developing baby.

Some of the changes in a woman’s immune system during pregnancy can be understood by looking at the common influenza virus. One study found that women who contracted the flu near the end of their pregnancies were 5 times more likely to require hospitalization than non-pregnant women.

With COVID-19, pregnant women are also at a higher risk of developing complications if they get sick. Because a mother’s immune system has to work overtime to protect her fetus, her body may not be able to fight off viruses as effectively as it did prior to pregnancy.

When to call your OB-GYN?

Bacterial and viral infections during pregnancy often come with uncomfortable symptoms that can offer clues to what’s going on. For instance, vaginal itching or burning could be linked to a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis or an STD.

As a general rule, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you notice any changes in your body that are unusual for you, reach out to your doctor to make sure you aren’t battling an infection.

What issues can arise from infections during pregnancy?

Urinary infections normally aren’t harmful to your baby during pregnancy as long as they’re treated as soon as symptoms arise. However, a urinary tract infection that goes on too long could impact your kidneys or lead to a high fever, which could harm you and your baby.

Certain viruses and bacterial infections are known to directly impact pregnancy and put your baby at risk. For instance:

  • Uterine infections can cause premature labor.

  • Fifth disease increases your chance of miscarriage.

  • Many STDs can cause you to enter labor early and even prevent you from having a vaginal delivery. Gonorrhea, for example, can lead to blindness in babies who are delivered vaginally.

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How can infection during pregnancy be treated?

The first step to treating an infection is to seek a diagnosis. Doctors use visual exams along with diagnostic testing to identify what type of bacteria or virus is causing your symptoms. Many infections can generate symptoms that are similar to others, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis. For instance, a yeast infection can mimic an STD, and these types of infections have a dramatically different impact on pregnancy.

Your prescribed treatment is designed to target the specific bacteria or virus that is causing the infection. For instance, you might take antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection during pregnancy. With a virus, the doctor might have you rest, stay hydrated and monitor you for symptoms.

Does early treatment reduce the risk of long-term effects?

Identifying and treating an infection early has a major impact on the outcome of the illness. Treating an STD right away could reduce your chances of having a miscarriage or infecting your baby at delivery. Since many bacterial infections can spread and worsen over time, taking medication as soon as possible can reduce the risk of complications.

An infection during pregnancy isn't always a serious problem, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you suspect you may have an infection, contact one of our trusted North Florida obstetrician-gynecologists right away. We’ll review your symptoms to assure that you and your baby remain healthy, comfortable and well-protected.