Pregnancy is a rewarding, yet daunting, journey for most women, many of whom are filled with endless questions. Some common questions are: “What happens if I become sick? Will it affect my baby?” This article explores the effects of shingles and chickenpox during pregnancy; the two conditions that are caused by the varicella zoster virus.
The virus, varicella zoster, is the infamous organism that causes chickenpox and shingles. When a person contracts varicella zoster, the person will have the virus forever. The initial outbreak upon contracting the virus is chickenpox. Once the person recovers, the virus stays dormant in the neurological system, and can reappear as shingles when activated. Shingles is characterized by painful blistering of the skin following the neurological tracts.
The onset of shingles during pregnancy, fortunately, will not harm the developing baby or fetus in any way. Since the mother already has the dormant varicella virus from the beginning of the pregnancy, there is no risk in passing on the virus to the fetus as the body is already adjusted to it. The virus is also mostly restricted to the skin, so there is minimal transmission between the mother to the baby.
However, if the mother contracts the varicella virus for the first time during the duration of pregnancy, an outbreak of chickenpox can potentially pose dangers to the developing baby or fetus. If the chickenpox outbreak occurs during the first 30 weeks of the pregnancy, inflammation of the uterus, congenital malformations of the developing baby, and/or a miscarriage, may take place.
Birth defects can include but are not limited to: low birth weight, neurological defects, eye lesions, skeletal abnormalities, and skin scarring. If the outbreak happens between the last 21 to 5 days before birth, the newborn baby can contract chickenpox during the birthing process. As the newborn’s immune system is not yet fully developed upon birth, an onset of chickenpox can become deadly for the baby. If the baby contracts the varicella virus, but does not have a chickenpox outbreak, an onset of shingles in later infancy and early childhood may take place.
[Related – The Most Common Types Of Birth Defects]
As for the pregnant mother, an outbreak of chickenpox can increase the risk for other severe illness in the woman. In fact, 10 to 20 percent of those infected develop varicella pneumonia with mortality (death) reported as high as 40 percent.
If a pregnant woman contracts chickenpox for the first time during pregnancy, emergency medical care should be sought to take the appropriate measures. The susceptibility of a pregnant woman to chickenpox also increases during the second trimester. Hence, it may also be a good idea to receive varicella zoster vaccination prior to becoming pregnant to avoid such risks, and stay away from others who have shingles or chickenpox throughout the duration of the pregnancy.
So what happens if you are currently pregnant and come in contact with chickenpox or shingles? Fortunately, there are precautionary measures you can take to prevent the potential adverse effects of the virus. Talk to your health care provider immediately, so that he or she can administer the varicella zoster immune globulin (VariZIG) within 96 hours of contact. This immune globulin is not a vaccine, but can prevent or modify potential infection (chickenpox outbreak) of the virus so that symptoms would milder and overall less harmful to the mother.
If the globulin does not work and the illness worsens, the doctor can prescribe oral antiviral medications in moderation for the mother. Therapy doses and treatment time can vary due to the mother’s obstetrics history, risks, and the progression of the trimester. There is also a high probably the pregnant mother will also be hospitalized for safety measures and further observation.
Receiving the varicella zoster virus vaccine during pregnancy has been up to debate for some time in terms of safety. The vaccine is usually in live attenuated form, which means that the virus is alive but extremely weak. This is intended to have the body develop antibodies against the virus. Concerns of administering live viruses to a pregnant woman is an issue that is still up in the air.
While there are no studies to prove that giving a live vaccine during pregnancy has direct correlation to the developing fetus, most health providers still err on side of caution. To play things safe, it may be worth it to get vaccinated at least 28 days prior to getting pregnant. If the mother has never had chickenpox and was never vaccinated, but was able to go through the entire pregnancy without contracting the virus, a varicella vaccination would be given in the hospital after the baby was born.
Talk to your health care provider about your situation for additional prevention tips for a safe pregnancy.