Being sick is the last thing you’d want to be – especially when you’re pregnant. Unfortunately, though, pregnant women are more susceptible to getting ill than the general population as your immune system is slightly suppressed. Although getting a little bit sick won’t affect the growth or health of your baby, some infections and diseases can be worrying if left untreated or undetected.
To understand how certain infections affect pregnancy, we’re going to highlight some common illnesses that can be dangerous to a mother and their developing baby, as well as precautions you can take to help prevent the possibility of catching them.
Why are pregnant women more vulnerable to infections?
Normally, when we encounter viruses or bacteria in our daily lives, our bodies produce antibodies to defend us from infection. But when you’re pregnant, the changes to your hormone levels and immune system functioning can make you more vulnerable to receiving infections.
Generally, your immune system is altered to accommodate pregnancy. The immune system engages in a balancing act, by weakening and strengthening at various periods in your pregnancy to protect against infection while also repressing itself to allow for fetal development and growth. As a result, pregnant women are more susceptible to catching common diseases.
What viral diseases can cause complications in pregnancy?
Rubella (German measles), chickenpox, and parvovirus (fifth disease) are all viral diseases transmitted through contact with infected respiratory secretions or droplets. Blood tests in early pregnancy will detect whether your body has antibodies against rubella. Women who do not have antibodies will be susceptible to infection. These infections will increase the risk of the baby having malformations, miscarriage, or death.
Another common upper respiratory tract infection is influenza. In pregnancy, catching the flu can lead to a more severe course of infection than usual, putting both mother and baby at risk.
It’s therefore recommended that pregnant women receive vaccinations against common diseases, like the flu. Many of these vaccinations are safe as they generally contain killed (inactive) viruses that won’t affect your baby. You should discuss vaccinations with your doctor early on in your pregnancy or when you’re trying to conceive.
On an important note, if you’re experiencing an infection or sickness during your pregnancy, please talk to your doctor or midwife as soon as possible to rule out any worrying symptoms – no matter how minor or mild you believe it to be.
Infectious diseases affecting pregnancy
There are certain foods in pregnancy that should be avoided as there is a high risk of food-borne diseases whose symptoms are more severe in pregnancy. The infections can affect the baby’s development, cause preterm labour, pregnancy loss, as well as jeopardise the mother’s health. These include:
1. ToxoplasmosisThis is a parasitic disease that can be contracted through foods such as unwashed contaminated fruits and vegetables, raw or undercooked meats, cold cured meats, or from direct contact with contaminated cat litter. Wash salads and cook meats thoroughly to prevent this infection.
2. ListeriaThis bacteria is found in soft cheeses, pre-packaged sandwiches, cold cuts, raw or smoked seafood, soft-serve ice creams, unpasteurised dairy products, and pâté. The listeria infection can be treated with antibiotics, but harm to the baby can be irreversible. The best way to avoid listeria is to avoid potentially infected foods.
3. SalmonellaSalmonella is often found in raw eggs (e.g. homemade mayonnaise, raw batter). The infection will result in symptoms similar to when you aren’t pregnant, such as diarrhoea and a fever. The risks of salmonella to expectant mothers are more minimal compared to listeria; however, it can still cause some complications. Cooking eggs thoroughly can prevent this.
4. E. coliThis is a bacteria that normally resides in the large bowel. However, it can infect the mother’s urinary tract and cause a urinary tract infection. It can also be spread through faecal-oral routes via contaminated food such as raw meats, poultry and sprouts. Washing hands before eating and cooking foods thoroughly can prevent this. An infection during pregnancy can cause severe diarrhoea, dehydration, preterm labour or pregnancy loss.
Preventing infections in pregnancy
To best avoid these above infections and common diseases, it’s recommended to avoid extremely crowded and under-ventilated areas. If you have symptoms of these infections or have contacted people known to have these infections, you should avoid attending obstetric clinics, inform your doctor and attend general practice clinics for medical care.
If you’re planning a pregnancy, or in the early stages of pregnancy, consult a doctor about vaccinations that you might need. At the OT&P family clinic, we’ve helped numerous expecting mothers, babies and families with their journeys – you can get in contact with our midwives for more information.