What Pregnant People Need to Know About Coronavirus
Does COVID-19 affect pregnant women more severely? We spoke with experts to learn more about the potential impact of the coronavirus on your pregnancy.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused widespread panic since it originated in Wuhan, China. But while the disease has caused over 3 million illnesses in the U.S. alone, it's still early for researchers to know exactly how COVID-19 impacts pregnant women or fetuses. Pregnant women might be at a higher risk for severe illness, but experts don't entirely know whether the coronavirus passes from Mother to Baby through the placenta. Also, it appears that most newborns with COVID-19 recover without any complications. Read on for more information about COVID-19 and pregnancy, with tips for preventing the fast-spreading respiratory illness.
Coronavirus and Pregnancy
It’s natural for pregnant women to worry about the coronavirus. After all, they have a higher risk of contracting viral illnesses due to changes in physiology and immune systems, according to Jessica Madden, M.D., medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. “For example, women who get influenza while pregnant are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia than women who aren't pregnant,” she says. Viral illnesses like the flu are associated with an increased risk for miscarriages, birth defects, low birth weight, and other pregnancy complications.
Preliminary research suggests that COVID-19 follows this same trend. While studying coronavirus cases from January 22–June 7, 2020, the CDC found that pregnant women were "significantly more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and receive mechanical ventilation" from COVID-19. However, the risk of death was the same for both pregnant and non-pregnant women
According to Justin Brandt, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Medical School in New Jersey, "women with COVID-19 might also be at greater risk for pregnancy complications" such as miscarriage, preterm birth, and fetal growth restriction if they have COVID-19. Still, the CDC stresses that more information is needed before making a definite conclusion.
Keep in mind that the coronavirus tends to affect older people and those with preexisting conditions more severely, according to the CDC. It makes sense, then, that those with “high-risk” pregnancies have increased odds, suggests Dr. Madden. This includes women with preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and other complications.
Does Coronavirus Affect the Fetus?
Experts still aren't entirely sure if the coronavirus passes through the placenta (intrauterine vertical transmission). Preliminary research published in The Lancet followed nine women who gave birth via C-section, and found that none of the babies tested positive for the coronavirus. They also appeared healthy after birth. “To date, all umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, and breast milk samples from women with coronavirus that have been tested for COVID-19 have been negative in babies,” says Dr. Madden.
However, the CDC reports that some newborns receive a positive COVID-19 test shortly after delivery, and it's unknown whether they contracted the disease "before, during, or after birth." Again, more information is needed before making a definite conclusion about intrauterine vertical transmission. The good news is that most babies with coronavirus have mild symptoms and recover without complications—although a few newborns suffered severe illness or death.
Some pregnant women with coronavirus experienced pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and miscarriage. Preterm birth has also been recorded for mothers positive for COVID-19—but ”it is not clear that these outcomes were related to maternal infection,” says the CDC.
How to Prevent Coronavirus Transmission
If you’re pregnant or a new mother, avoid travel to places with active coronavirus spread and don’t interact with anyone who's had potential exposure. What’s more, “basic practices encouraged for protection against any respiratory infection remain valid,” says Charles Bailey, M.D., medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. “Stay home if you’re ill (and encourage others to do the same), cover your cough or sneeze, use disposable tissues and throw them away immediately after use, and get a flu shot.” The CDC also recommends the use of cloth face masks—not N95 respirators, which are critical for health care workers—in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, like at grocery stores or pharmacies.
Dr. Bailey also recommends frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The CDC says hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol also works in a pinch. Washing your hands is especially important before eating or touching your face.
I’m Pregnant and Think I Have the Coronavirus—Now What?
If you're showing symptoms of the coronavirus (cough, fever, shortness of breath), consult your obstetrician or physician right away. Unless you live in an area with lots of coronavirus spread, “such symptoms would be much more likely to be caused by another viral infection,” says Dr. Bailey. Even so, respiratory symptoms should be taken seriously, since they may have negative consequences for the pregnancy.
If you are diagnosed with the coronavirus, your health care provider will decide on a course of treatment. “It’s also important for pregnant women with coronavirus to plan for a hospital birth due to their risk of developing complications from the virus (like pneumonia),” says Dr. Madden. She adds that newborns should also be closely monitored for the development of viral symptoms after birth.