Colds and the Flu | Respiratory Infections During Pregnancy

If you are pregnant, it is important to take precautions against viral infections. A viral infection is a contagious disease. Most viruses will not harm your baby. However, some viruses can cause miscarriages or birth defects. A virus can affect your respiratory tract (breathing) and cause other symptoms. The flu and the common cold are examples of viral infections. Other examples are:

  • Chickenpox (chicken pox)
  • Fifth illness
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Rubella (also called German measles)
  • zika virus
  • COVID-19

Pregnant women may be exposed to people with viral infections. They are transmitted directly through touch, kisses or sexual activity. You can also contract them indirectly, by coughing or sneezing. They can spread through contact with infected surfaces, food, and water. Just because you are exposed does not mean you will get sick.

Path to better health

Contact your doctor right away if you are pregnant and have been exposed to someone who has a viral infection. The doctor will want to know what virus and what type of contact you had. They may also ask you about your symptoms.

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 happens if I am exposed to the flu?

The flu can be more serious for pregnant women. You can get seriously ill. However, it almost never causes birth defects in the baby. If you are pregnant during flu season (October through March), you should get a flu vaccine.

What should I do if I am exposed to chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the chickenpox virus and is very contagious. It can be serious during pregnancy. Sometimes chickenpox can cause birth defects. If you have had chickenpox in the past, you are unlikely to get it again. If you haven’t had it or are unsure, consult your doctor. Your doctor will do a blood test to see if you are immune.

Many people who do not remember having chickenpox are immune. If your blood test shows that you are not immune, you can take medicine to make your illness less severe and help protect your baby from chickenpox.

What should I do if I am exposed to fifth disease?

Fifth disease is a common virus in children. About half of adults are sensitive to fifth disease and can catch it from children.

Children with fifth disease often develop a rash on the body and cold-like symptoms. Their cheeks may be red and look like they have been slapped or pinched. Adults who get fifth disease usually do not have the “slapped cheek” rash. Adults often feel a lot of pain in their joints.

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

What happens if I am exposed to cytomegalovirus?

Cytomegalovirus usually does not cause any symptoms. This makes it difficult to know if you have it. It is the most common infection that can be transmitted from mother to baby. Cytomegalovirus affects 1 in 100 pregnant women. It can cause birth defects, such as hearing loss, developmental disabilities, or even death of the fetus.

It is important to prevent cytomegalovirus because there is no way to treat it. Women who work in daycare or health care facilities are at highest risk of becoming infected. Pregnant women with these jobs should wash their hands after handling diapers and avoid cuddling or kissing babies. If you think you have been exposed to a person who has cytomegalovirus, see your doctor right away.

What happens if I am exposed to rubella?

Since 1969, almost all children have received the rubella vaccine, making it a rare disease today. At the first prenatal visit, all pregnant women should be tested to see if they are immune to rubella. Women who are not immune should receive the vaccine after the baby is born. Talk to your doctor if you are trying to get pregnant. Then you can get vaccinated in advance if you are not immune.

Symptoms of rubella in adults are joint pain and a possible ear infection. The virus can cause serious birth defects or death of the fetus. Talk to your doctor if you have these symptoms or have been exposed.

What happens if I am exposed to measles?

Measles (also called rubella) is a serious respiratory disease that affects the lungs and airways. It also causes a rash and fever. It is one of the most contagious diseases that exist and can be transmitted to other people very easily. In rare cases, it can be fatal. If you are thinking about getting pregnant or are pregnant, talk to your doctor about getting the measles vaccine. If you travel, you are at increased risk of contracting measles. A person infected with measles can infect 9 out of 10 of their unvaccinated close contacts. Many countries and popular tourist destinations have experienced measles outbreaks in recent years. Most were children who had not received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. To prevent measles infection and prevent its spread, all US residents should be up to date on their MMR vaccinations, especially before international travel, regardless of destination.

What happens if I am exposed to the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is a travel-related virus that can cause birth defects if a woman is exposed during pregnancy. Zika outbreaks have been reported in South America, Central America, and North America. The virus can cause microcephaly (the baby’s head and brain are smaller than normal. This causes intellectual disability).

The infection is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito or transmitted to a woman through sexual contact. Women who are pregnant or hope to become pregnant should avoid traveling to these regions and use a condom during sex if their partner has traveled to the area. Your doctor will tell you how long you should wait before trying to get pregnant if your partner has been exposed to the virus.

Things to consider

Most other viruses do not appear to increase the natural risk of birth defects. This includes viruses such as common measles, mumps, roseola, mononucleosis, and bronchiolitis. In normal pregnancies, the risk of serious birth defects is 2% to 3%.

To protect yourself from all infectious viruses:

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom or before eating.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick, infected, or in close contact with others who are.
  • Get the flu vaccine and other vaccines before or during pregnancy, as needed.

Contact your doctor right away if you have been exposed to an infected person or have symptoms of a virus. They can provide treatment, if possible, and monitor your baby for signs of infection.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if I have been exposed to someone infected with a virus?
  • What can I do to prevent exposure?
  • How do I know if I am immune to certain viruses?
  • When should I get the flu vaccine?
  • Are there any other vaccines I should receive before or during pregnancy?

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Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your primary care doctor to find out if this information applies to you and for more information on this topic.

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