Pregnancy and Chicken Pox
Conceiving a child in a woman’s womb and bringing that newborn into the world remains to be one of life’s miracles. The period of anticipation for 9 months, both a joyous and perhaps somewhat an anxious waiting for most expectant mothers, is what we call Pregnancy.
One of the most dreaded health problems women might encounter during pregnancy is infection. One such infection that surely causes great concern both for the mother and her doctor is Chickenpox.
Chickenpox, also known as Varicella, is a very contagious infection caused by Varicella-Zoster virus and is transmitted via direct contact or through the air shared with an infected person through talking, sneezing or coughing. Incubation period, which refers to the time between exposure to manifestation of the illness, is around 10-21 days. If you never had chickenpox before, the risk of being infected after being exposed to a person with chickenpox is between 65-90%. Once infected, you are expected to be contagious from one day before you develop rashes up until the time that all of your rashes have dried up.
The common signs and symptoms are as follows:
- Flu-like syndrome that lasts for 1-2 days.
- Itchy rash described as vesicles or blisters that crust over for the next 3-7 days, which in most cases begin on the face and quickly spreads throughout the whole body.
- Pneumonia which is characterized by difficulty of breathing, cough and chest pain, hence considered a serious complication.
The more pressing concern now is what happens when a pregnant woman has chickenpox.
If you are pregnant and you get infected during the first trimester of pregnancy or second trimester of pregnancy which is the period of the baby’s major organ formation and development, there is a 0.4-2% risk of the baby being born with low birth weight and growth restriction; eye defects; brain, kidney or bone problems; scarring and skin rash. This occurrence is called Congenital Varicella Syndrome. It is also risky if you develop chickenpox rash a few days before or after giving birth because your baby can acquire a potentially fatal infection. Thirty percent of babies who subsequently develop chickenpox at birth eventually die.
Although there are laboratory tests available for confirming a chickenpox infection like Tzanck smear and antibody testing, diagnosis in most cases is done clinically. This means that your doctor initially recognizes the symptoms and do not need blood tests anymore to decide on starting treatment.
Treatment options for both the mother and baby include antiviral medications and Varicella-Zoster immunoglobulin (VZIG) to hopefully reduce the severity of the illness. However, it is still controversial if receiving this can protect your developing baby. It is still best to discuss the pros and cons of these with your doctor.
In general, if you had chickenpox as a child or has completed immunization against it, most likely you are immune already. But if not and you are not pregnant, you can get the chickenpox vaccine (PDF download – “Chickenpox Vaccine: What you need to know” from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) so that you will not acquire the disease in the future. On the other hand, this vaccine is not recommended for non-immune pregnant women. Note that the vaccine is safe to be given after delivery even for breastfeeding mothers.
Of course the best way to go about it is to avoid getting infected. Hence if you are pregnant, you should avoid coming near people with fever and rash, or any other illness. Wear a face mask in public if you are not sure that the area is completely safe. Practice frequent hand-washing and proper hygiene. This cliché can never be overemphasized, so we will say it again, prevention still is better than cure.