herpes in pregnancy

You probably haven't heard of this, but having a genital herpes in pregnancy can be very dangerous for your baby under certain circumstances.

That's why it's important to be informed about it, since the point here is to ensure your future child's health. Genital herpes is listed as one of the common sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and it's caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is divided into two types: type 1 (HSV-1), usually responsible for oral herpes and cold sores in the mouth, and type 2 (HSV-2), the common cause of genital herpes, which is characterised by an outbreak of blisters in the lower part of your body, including the genital area, bottom and thighs. 

To what extent can herpes during pregnancy affect your baby? Keep reading to clear up your doubts.


How can I get herpes in pregnancy?

You can get infected with herpes, either genital or oral one, if you have sexual contact with a person who carries the virus. It's possible for you to catch it through skin-to-skin contact, having oral sex (if the one who performs it has an active cold sore) or even sharing sex toys. The problem is that a lot of people with HSV don't even know they have it, as they don't show or notice any symptoms. And let's not forget that once you've been infected, herpes stays in your body for the rest of your life, even if it can remain inactive.


What can happen to my baby if I have herpes in pregnancy? 

Herpes in pregnancy can cause what's known as neonatal herpes, a life-threatening disease that rarely affects babies up to 28 days old. Such an illness can provoke serious damage to the baby's central nervous system, causing mental disability, blindness, deafness or even death. However, a lot of it depends on when you get infected, have active symptoms and the precautions taken during labour.


What if I had herpes before pregnancy?

If that's the case, herpes won't entail high risks for your baby, as you'll have time to pass on antibodies to him that will fight the virus. Nevertheless, if you are still concerned about it, you could follow an antiviral treatment based on a medication called Acyclovir, which can be taken without risks throughout your pregnancy.


What if I get herpes in pregnancy in an early stage? 

You may be able to have a vaginal birth if you catch genital herpes early in your pregnancy, unless you are infected past 28 weeks pregnant. Doctors consider that, after such a checkpoint, your body may not be able to produce and pass the necessary antibodies on to your child. In the first case, you'll probably be referred to an obstetrician, who will prescribe you an antiviral treatment for the remaining weeks of pregnancy. If you take Acyclovir, your chances of suffering from an outbreak around your due date will be far lower. It's possible that you also get tested in a genitourinary medicine clinic (GUM), where you may get additional help from specialists in sexual transmitted infections (STIs).


What if I get herpes in pregnancy during the last stages?

Unfortunately, if you have a genital herpes outbreak within the last six weeks of your pregnancy, your baby will be at risk of catching the virus during labour, so you will be advised against having a vaginal birth. Besides undergoing the same antiviral treatment noted above for the rest of your pregnancy, you may also be offered to plan a C-section, so that your munchkin avoids any exposure to the virus while delivery happens.


What if my baby gets herpes during or after delivery?

As we've already mentioned, mums who catch genital herpes at the last stage of their pregnancies are more than 50% likely to pass the virus on to their children when giving birth, due to their possible contact with sores and blisters present in the birth canal. Though only one to two babies out of 100.000 births are affected by neonatal herpes in the UK, it's good to know what to expect. Some of the affected newborns may show sores at birth, but they typically show up between their first and second weeks of life. Such blisters can appear anywhere on a child's body, being more treatable when they are limited to his eyes, mouth and skin.

In addition, keep in mind that a small percentage of newborn herpes cases are contracted after giving birth. It may just take you to kiss your child while having an active cold sore in your mouth to pass the virus on him. Not to mention the skin-to-skin contact with affected body areas.


When should I worry about it?

When a baby with herpes shows symptoms such as fever, seizures and irritability, the herpes may be affecting his central nervous system, which can be potentially fatal. The same thing may occur if he's got a disseminated herpes, which involves different organs and may be hard to detect, as it isn't necessarily accompanied by skin lesions.


What if my partner has genital herpes? 

In such a case, you should avoid having intercourse with him until his herpes outbreak is over. Then, make sure he uses a condom every time you have sex during your pregnancy, even if he doesn't show symptoms, which will reduce the risk of infection.

Ok, you may not have any more doubts regarding herpes and pregnancy, but what about breastfeeding? Can you do so when having an active herpes outbreak? Yes, but not always. For example, if you have lesions on your breast, you should talk to your doctor about it and look for alternatives. If they only affect one breast, you can use the other one to nurse your child, but make sure to cover the sores in other areas in order to prevent any contact.


Finally, herpes in pregnancy isn't a pleasant thing to deal with. Or better said, herpes alone can be a pain in the neck, but when it can also affect your future baby's health, things get uglier. The best way to face it is by being cautious, adopting preventive measures like checking yourself and your partner for any symptoms, getting tested and, in case you do have an active infection, washing your hands very often and covering your lesions when taking care of your child.