About 25 percent of American women have genital herpes, which is caused by a group of viruses called herpes simplex. Since many infected moms-to-be don't experience symptoms, they can unknowingly pass the virus on to others, including their own babies.
Women who contract genital herpes for the first time may develop fever, fatigue, swollen glands, and body aches. A small percentage may also experience itchy, painful blisters in their genital area. Doctors diagnose herpes by looking at the sores, and in some cases, may take a swab of the blisters or do a blood test. The herpes virus remains in the body forever, causing some infected individuals to experience sporadic outbreaks throughout their lifetime.
The good news is that most moms-to-be with herpes don't pass it on to their children during vaginal delivery. The risk is highest (30 to 50 percent) when a pregnant woman contracts herpes (whether or not she has symptoms) for the first time late in pregnancy. Infected infants can develop skin or mouth sores and eye infections. Often, these problems can be treated safely with antiviral drugs, but there are occasions when the infection can spread to the baby's brain and internal organs. Unfortunately, despite treatment, as many as half of all babies with widespread infections die, with survivors often suffering from brain damage.
You can protect yourself and your unborn child from these risks by making sure you don't contract herpes for the first time during pregnancy. If there's a possibility you may have this condition, speak with your doctor to arrange a blood test. Testing is especially important if you or your partner has a history of herpes. If your partner has the virus, avoid intercourse when he has symptoms and use a condom even when he doesn't. Your doctor may even suggest avoiding intercourse altogether during the last trimester. It is also important to avoid oral sex if your partner has cold sores in his mouth, which are also caused by one of the herpes viruses.
If you do contract this disease for the first time during pregnancy, your doctor may prescribe acyclovir, an antiviral drug, which can shorten attacks and ease symptoms. Acyclovir may also reduce the risk of cesarean delivery for women who have frequent flare-ups of old herpes infections. If you experience a flare-up near delivery, the risk of passing the infection to your baby is low (less than 1 percent). However, if you continue to experience symptoms near your due date, your healthcare provider may recommend a cesarean delivery, which can protect your baby from infection.