Here's what you really need to understand about the link between herpes during pregnancy and a potential autism diagnosis in children.

worried pregnant woman lying on her side
Credit: George Rudy/Shutterstock

A new study in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology, has pointed to a link between herpes infection during pregnancy and an increased risk of autism. But before you panic, let's take a closer look at what this research is really saying.

According to Popular Science, it was widely reported that maternal herpes infection was linked to autism. It's important to understand that the study found that a previous infection is not linked to an increased autism risk, but rather actually becoming infected with HSV-2 during early pregnancy is what was associated with a two-fold risk for a child being diagnosed with the spectrum disorder.

This clarification is vital, given that according to the press release, about one in five American women has sexually-transmitted genital herpes. There is no cure for the lifelong and quite-common infection that may never manifest in any noticeable symptoms. Scary, right?

But again, if you (knowingly or unknowingly) carry herpes, and you become pregnant, your risk for having a child with autism is not affected. However, this study found that if you become newly infected during early pregnancy, your child's risk increases.

"We believe the mother's immune response to HSV-2 could be disrupting fetal central nervous system development, raising risk for autism," explains Milada Mahic, of the Center for Infection and Immunity and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, about the reason the risk goes up.

More importantly, as senior author W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity said, "The cause or causes of most cases of autism are unknown." He adds, "But evidence suggests a role for both genetic and environmental factors. Our work suggests that inflammation and immune activation may contribute to risk. Herpes simplex virus-2 could be one of any number of infectious agents involved."

In other words, becoming infected with herpes during pregnancy is only one of many factors that could cause autism. Could. The truth is we don't yet know exactly how or why autism occurs.

The bottom line: If you have herpes, or are concerned you might, or that you could have recently contracted it, talk to your doctor about the implications for your pregnancy and baby. And always practice safe sex with a new partner during pregnancy, or, well, ever.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.