The 9 Maternal Infections That Can Harm Your Developing Baby – and How to Avoid Them

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Maternal Infections

While most infections that are common in developed countries do not cause fetal harm, there are several infections that can cause miscarriage or birth defects if you contract them during pregnancy. Some of these infections are common, others are pretty rare. Some are vaccine-preventable, some are not. Most are completely avoidable with the common-sense suggestions below.

The Infections:

  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV; virus)
  • Fifth disease (Parvovirus B19 virus)
  • Herpes Simplex virus (virus)
  • Listeria (bacteria in soil, water, some plants)
  • Measles (virus)
  • Rubella (virus)
  • Syphilis (sexually transmitted infection; bacteria)
  • Toxoplasmosis (parasite)
  • Varicella Zoster (chickenpox virus)

 How to avoid them:
Make sure your vaccines are up to date to avoid measles, rubella, and chickenpox. Get tested for immunity prior to pregnancy. If not immune, get the vaccine and wait a month before getting pregnant. If you find out you are not immune while you are pregnant, be sure to get vaccinated right after delivery – even if you are breastfeeding.

Avoid new sex partners who may be infected to avoid CMV, herpes, and syphilis. Ask your health care provider to test for these infections if you have any symptoms or if you had a new sexual partner (or if they had a new sex partner).

Remember to wash your hands frequently to avoid CMV, listeria, measles, fifth disease, rubella, and toxoplasmosis. Wash carefully after changing children’s diapers. Keep away from children with runny noses and coughs, avoid touching surfaces that may have saliva on them (toys, pacifiers, toothbrushes). Don’t share drinks or food with kids – or adults either!

Wear gloves if you are gardening and wash all fruits and vegetables to avoid listeria and toxoplasmosis.

To avoid toxoplasmosis, have someone else change the cat litter box. If there is no one else, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Change the box daily – the parasite is not infectious until a few days after it’s been deposited in the litter box. Don’t feed your cats raw or undercooked meat, keep them indoors, and avoid strays, especially kittens who are more likely to spread the infection.

To avoid Listeria, keep your refrigerator clean and at 400 F or below and avoid the following foods:

  • hot dogs unless they are well cooked and served hot
  • luncheon meats and fish from deli counters (like lox, smoked, nova-style and kippered fish), canned is safe
  • unpasteurized milk or cheeses (check the labels on brie, feta, blue cheese and Mexican soft cheeses to make sure they were made with pasteurized milk)
  • refrigerated paté or meat spreads (canned is safe)

In general, avoid people who are sick. If you are not already immune, or do not know if you are immune, especially avoid people who have CMV, fifth disease, measles, rubella or chickenpox which are all transmitted by respiratory droplets (left behind by sneezing or coughing).

See your health care provider if you think you many have come in contact with someone who may have any one of these infections, or if you are not feeling well in general. They will help you to decide if you need further testing or treatment.

Finally, remember that you can lower the risk of getting infected with any of these diseases relatively easily with these common sense recommendations. Don’t overly worry. If you’d like more information, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) either by phone at 822-232-4636 or on-line at http://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy.

Please, let us know your opinion in the Comments section below. Thank you!

You may also want to read a related post in Pregistry’s blog: Toxoplasmosis (Or Why Your Partner Should Clean the Litter Box).

Kristine Shields
Dr. Kristine Shields is an Ob/Gyn Nurse Practitioner with a doctorate in Public Health. She is a women's health advocate dedicated to providing evidence-based information to pregnant and breastfeeding women and their health care providers so they can make informed treatment decisions.

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