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Infections During Pregnancy


Lara A. Friel

, MD, PhD, University of Texas Health Medical School at Houston, McGovern Medical School

Last full review/revision Jun 2021| Content last modified Jun 2021
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Most common infections that occur during pregnancy, such as those of the skin, urinary tract, and respiratory tract, cause no serious problems. However, some infections can be passed to the fetus before or during birth and damage the fetus or cause a miscarriage or premature birth. Also, whether taking antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs is safe during pregnancy is a concern.

Sexually transmitted diseases that can cause problems include the following:

  • Gonorrhea can also cause conjunctivitis in newborns.

  • Syphilis can be transmitted from a mother to the fetus through the placenta. Syphilis in the fetus can cause several birth defects and cause problems in the newborn. Pregnant women are routinely tested for syphilis early in the pregnancy. Usually, treatment of syphilis during pregnancy cures both mother and fetus.

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is transmitted to the fetus in about one fourth to one third of pregnancies if women who have the infection are not treated. Experts recommend that women with HIV infection take antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy. If women take a combination of antiretroviral drugs, the risk of transmitting HIV to the fetus can be reduced to as low as 1%. For some women with HIV infection, cesarean delivery, planned in advance, may further reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby. Pregnancy does not seem to speed up the progression of HIV infection in women.

  • Genital herpes can be transmitted to the baby during a vaginal delivery. Babies who are infected with herpes can develop a life-threatening brain infection called herpes encephalitis. A herpes infection in babies can also damage other internal organs and cause skin and mouth sores, permanent brain damage, or even death. If women develop herpes sores in the genital area late in pregnancy or if herpes first develops during late pregnancy, women are usually advised to give birth by cesarean delivery, so that the virus is not transmitted to the baby. If no sores are present and herpes develops earlier, the risk of transmission is very low, and vaginal delivery is possible.

  • Zika virus infection in a pregnant woman can cause the baby to have a small head (microcephaly). The head is small because it does not develop normally. Zika virus infection can also cause eye abnormalities in the baby. The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, but it can also be spread through sexual intercourse, through blood transfusions, and from a pregnant woman to her baby before or during birth.

Infections that are not transmitted sexually and that can cause problems include the following:

Hepatitis may be transmitted sexually but is often transmitted in other ways. Thus, it is not typically considered a sexually transmitted disease. Hepatitis in a pregnant woman can increase the risk of premature birth. It can also be transmitted from the mother to the baby during delivery, causing problems.

Treatment of Infections During Pregnancy

  • Sometimes drugs, depending on the balance of benefits and risks

To determine whether to treat pregnant women with antimicrobial drugs, doctors weigh the risks of using the drug against the risks of the infection.

Some antibacterial drugs, such as the penicillins, cephalosporins, and drugs related to erythromycin (called macrolides), are generally considered safe for use during pregnancy.

Other antibacterial drugs, including tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones, may cause problems in the fetus (see table Some Drugs That Can Cause Problems During Pregnancy).

Doctors also consider whether treatment is likely to have any benefits. For example, if women have bacterial vaginosis but no symptoms and if the pregnancy is not considered high-risk, treating bacterial vaginosis is not known to have any benefits.

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Abortion is defined as the intentional ending of a pregnancy by surgery or drugs. Which of the following statements about abortion in the United States is most accurate? 
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