It’s something you probably haven’t thought about since you were a child but chickenpox in pregnancy can be a huge issue. Here’s what you need to know.
Chickenpox is a common, viral infectious disease that produces a rash. Once you’ve had it, you can’t catch it again because your body will produce antibodies to fight the infection.
Yet it is serious when caught during pregnancy or by a woman who gave birth less than seven days ago.
Catching chickenpox in pregnancy
For all of the worry around getting chickenpox when pregnant, actually catching it is very rare. Just three in every 1,000 women catch chickenpox during pregnancy (NHS Choices, 2016). Speak to your midwife or GP immediately if you:
- are pregnant and may have chickenpox
- are pregnant and have been near someone who has it
- get chickenpox up to seven days after giving birth.
(NHS Choices, 2016)
Chickenpox and pregnant women
The risks of having chickenpox during pregnancy are lower than they had been thanks to improved treatment (NHS Choices, 2016). But in the worst cases, complications of chickenpox during pregnancy can include pneumonia, encephalitis and hepatitis and can cause fatalities. The risks of developing complications increase if you smoke, have a lung condition, have taken steroids in the last three months or are over 20 weeks pregnant.
Who to avoid
As you may know if you have children of school age, it’s very easy to catch chickenpox from being in close contact with someone who already has it. But the start of chickenpox is not that obvious to spot. A person is contagious from two days before the rash appears to when all the blisters have crusted over.
Can you get chickenpox twice?
In a word, no. But if you are pregnant and aren’t sure if you’ve already had it, don’t take any risks. See the GP as soon as you know you’ve been in contact with someone who has it. You can get a blood test to see if you’re immune.
Chickenpox signs and symptoms
Symptoms take between 10 days and three weeks to appear from when you caught chickenpox. When they appear, symptoms can include a fever, feeling generally unwell and the formation of watery, itchy blisters. After a few days, the blisters burst, crust over and heal but that can take up to two weeks (RCOG, 2015a; 2015b).
Chickenpox in babies
If you do get chickenpox during pregnancy, one of the biggest worries will inevitably be whether it will affect your unborn baby. It’s a complicated one to answer and depends on where you are in your pregnancy.
Before 28 weeks, there is a small risk of your baby developing foetal varicella syndrome (FVS). Foetal varicella syndrome can damage the baby’s skin, eyes, legs, arms, brain, bladder or bowel.
Between 28 weeks and 36 weeks the virus lives in the baby’s body without causing harm. The virus may become active again in the first few years of the baby’s life, causing shingles.
After 36 weeks, your baby could be born with chickenpox. If a woman has chickenpox within seven days after birth, her baby may get neonatal chickenpox up to 28 days after birth. When babies are exposed to chickenpox after they are born they may be slightly more at risk than older children but death is extremely rare (RCOG, 2015a; 2015b; NHS Choices, 2016).
If you are more than 20 weeks pregnant, you can be treated with antiviral medicine to reduce fever and symptoms. The medicine may also be given before 20 weeks but do check with your GP.
If your newborn baby gets chickenpox, breastfeeding can help protect them. Breastfeeding passes your antibodies to the baby whether you are immune or have caught chickenpox too.
While chickenpox vaccinations do exist, the best thing to do if you want one is to vaccinate against it three months before you start trying for a baby. The chickenpox vaccination cannot be given during pregnancy, unfortunately.
Pregnant women who aren’t immune to chickenpox but come into contact with it can get an injection of varicella zoster immune globin (VZIG). It should be given within 10 days of coming into contact with chickenpox as it strengthens the immune system for a short time. While VZIG may not prevent chickenpox it could make the infection milder and more short-lived (RCOG, 2015a; 2015b).
Find out more about health issues in pregnancy here.