As an adult starting a family of your own, you're probably not all that preoccupied with childhood illnesses such as chickenpox. After all, those bugs are just for kids, right? Wrong. In fact, if you come down with them while you're pregnant, they can harm your baby. The good news? Most pregnant women are immune to such illnesses. Still, it's hard to know if you're immune. For this reason, it's important to talk to your doctor about taking steps to protect your baby. And if you're not pregnant yet, see your doctor for a checkup and find out which illnesses you should be concerned about.
You're probably familiar with the pimply rash that ushers in a case of chickenpox (varicella). This virus is usually accompanied by a fever and is spread by respiratory droplets in the air. You can also get it by coming into direct contact with the rash. Luckily, 85 to 95 percent of pregnant women are immune because they've already had chickenpox. If you're sure you've had it, don't worry. If not, take note; about one in 2,000 women will develop chickenpox during pregnancy.
Serious complications from the virus are uncommon in children, but about 15 percent of infected adults develop a form of pneumonia, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. What's more, their babies face a small risk (about 1 percent) of congenital varicella syndrome, a group of birth defects that can include severe muscle and bone abnormalities, paralyzed limbs, blindness, and even mental retardation.
Another risk of chickenpox during pregnancy is that the newborn may get it, too. If the mother develops the rash between five days before to two days after delivery, the newborn has a 25 to 50 percent chance of contracting the disease. It can be severe in newborns: Up to 30 percent die if they're not treated right after birth with an antiviral drug called VZIG (varicella-zoster immune globulin).
Ideally, women who haven't had chickenpox or who aren't sure of their immunity status should be tested before pregnancy. Women who are not immune may receive the chickenpox vaccine and should wait at least one month after receiving it before trying to conceive.
If you're already pregnant and unsure of your chickenpox status, you'll receive an immunity test. Women who are not immune should avoid anyone with chickenpox and anyone who has been in contact with someone who has chickenpox. If you're exposed, your doctor will probably recommend treatment with VZIG. When given within 72 hours of exposure, VZIG helps prevent chickenpox or lessens its severity -- doctors are unsure as to whether or not it helps protect the fetus from infection. If all else fails and you wind up with chickenpox, you'll be treated with an antiviral drug called acyclovir to ease the symptoms.