Prenatal infections: Prevention and awareness
2/14/2022 by Marla DeWitt, M.D.
Avoiding infection is a health topic on everyone's mind these days. During pregnancy, avoiding infection and illness become even more important.
Some infections, like chickenpox or toxoplasma, have specific harmful effects on a developing infant. Other infections, like the seasonal flu, don't directly harm a baby, but they seem to make people who are pregnant sicker than those who are not pregnant.
Staying healthy during pregnancy can seem like a complex topic, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some basic guidelines to avoiding infections while pregnant:
Prior to pregnancy
The best time to think about illness prevention in pregnancy is before you become pregnant. If you're contemplating becoming pregnant, you can take some basic steps to optimize your health and strengthen your immune system, including:
- Making sure you're up to date on all routine vaccinations and preventive care.
- Eating a balanced diet.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
Avoid respiratory illnesses:
- During pregnancy, seasonal flu shots and COVID-19 vaccination and booster vaccinations, are strongly recommended.
- Follow current public health recommendations on social distancing and masking.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick.
Women who are pregnant are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Certain foods should be avoided, including:
- Unpasteurized milk and dairy products.
- Raw or undercooked meats and poultry.
- Foods with a higher risk of carrying Listeria bacterium, like processed deli meats.
Be cautious of insect- and animal-borne diseases:
- If you have a cat, especially one that goes outdoors, have a family member clean the litter box while you are pregnant to avoid toxoplasmosis.
- If you live in an area where insect-born diseases like Lyme disease or West Nile virus are common, be sure to avoid insect exposure as much as you can. Consider using insect repellant if you need to be outdoors during times when insects are active.
- If you plan to travel, especially to a tropical area, but sure you know about potential illnesses in that area, such as Zika virus.
It is a common misconception that vaccines are less safe to receive during pregnancy. However, the only vaccines that should be avoided while pregnant are live vaccines. These include the nasal version of the influenza; measles, mumps, and rubella; and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines. Getting routine vaccinations is recommended in pregnancy due to the mother's risk of having more severe disease.
If you do become ill
Despite all prevention measures, illness can sometimes happen. If you become sick when you are pregnant, don't panic. Talk with your obstetrician, midwife, or other health care provider and come up with a plan for treatment. Discuss over-the-counter medications for symptoms with your health care team before using them.
Marla DeWitt, M.D., is a physician in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Department of Family Medicine. She practices in the Baldwin Building in Rochester.