Colds and the Flu | Respiratory Infections During Pregnancy

What is a viral respiratory infection?

A viral respiratory infection is a contagious illness that can affect your respiratory tract (breathing) and cause other symptoms. The flu and the common cold are examples of viral respiratory infections. Other examples of respiratory viruses are:

  • Chickenpox (varicella)
  • Fifth disease
  • Cytomegalovirus (say: “si-to-meg-ah-low-vi-russ”)
  • Rubella (also called German measles)

What if I’m exposed to a viral respiratory infection when I’m pregnant?

Pregnant women can be exposed to people with viral infections at work and at home. Most of the time, the woman doesn’t get infected. Even if she does, most viruses won’t hurt her baby. However, some viruses can cause miscarriage or birth defects in the baby.

If you’re exposed to a person who has chickenpox, fifth disease, cytomegalovirus or rubella while you’re pregnant, you should tell your doctor right away. Your doctor will want to know how much contact you’ve had with the infected person.

Here are some questions your doctor may ask you:

  • Did you touch or kiss the infected person
  • How long were you in contact with the infected person?
  • When did the infected person get sick?
  • Did a doctor diagnose the infected person’s illness? Were any tests done?

What should I do if I’m exposed to chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus and is highly contagious. It can be serious during pregnancy. Sometimes, chickenpox can cause birth defects. If you’ve had chickenpox in the past, it is unlikely you will catch it again and your baby will be fine. If you have not had chickenpox or if you’re not sure, you should see your doctor right away. Your doctor will test your blood to see if you are immune.

Many people who don’t remember having chickenpox are immune anyway. If your blood test shows that you’re not immune, you can take medicines to make your illness less severe and possibly help protect your baby from chickenpox.

What should I do if I’m exposed to fifth disease?

Fifth disease is a common virus in children. Half of all adults are susceptible to fifth disease and can catch it from children.

Children who have fifth disease usually develop a rash on their body and have cold-like symptoms. They may have red cheeks that look like they’ve been slapped or pinched. Adults who get fifth disease don’t usually have the “slapped cheek” rash. Adults who contract fifth disease usually have very sore joints.

If you get fifth disease early in your pregnancy, you could have a miscarriage. Fifth disease can also cause birth defects in your baby (such as severe anemia). If you’re exposed to fifth disease, call your doctor. Your doctor may have you take a blood test to see if you’re immune. You may also need an ultrasound exam to see if the baby has been infected.

What if I’m exposed to cytomegalovirus?

Cytomegalovirus usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, so you probably won’t know if you have it. It’s the most common infection that can be passed from mother to baby. Cytomegalovirus affects 1 of every 100 pregnant women. It can cause birth defects (such as hearing loss, development disabilities or even death of the fetus).

It’s important to prevent cytomegalovirus because there’s no way to treat it. Women who work in day care centers and in a health care setting have the highest risk of getting infected. Pregnant women with these jobs should wash their hands after handling diapers and avoid nuzzling or kissing the babies. If you think you’ve been exposed to a person who has cytomegalovirus, you should see your doctor right away.

What if I’m exposed to rubella (German measles)?

Since 1969, almost all children have had the rubella vaccine, so it is a rare disease today. At the first prenatal visit, all pregnant women should be tested to see if they’re immune to rubella. Women who are not immune to rubella should get the vaccine after the baby is born. It’s even better to be tested before you get pregnant, so that you can get the vaccine if you need it.

If you’re exposed to rubella when you’re pregnant and are not immune, severe birth defects or death of the fetus can occur. Symptoms of rubella in adults are typically joint pain and occasionally an ear infection. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.

What if I’m exposed to influenza?

Influenza hardly ever causes birth defects. It can be more serious for the mother if she gets the flu while pregnant. You might get very sick. If you’ll be pregnant during the flu season (from October through March), you should get a flu shot in the fall.

A note about vaccines

Sometimes the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. Read here about vaccine shortages.

What about other viral infections?

Most other respiratory viruses (such as regular measles, mumps, roseola, mononucleosis [“mono”] and bronchiolitis) don’t seem to increase the normal risk for birth defects. In normal pregnancies, the risk of serious birth defects is only 2% to 3%. To protect yourself from all infectious viruses, wash your hands frequently (especially after using the restroom or before a meal).