Sexually Transmitted Infections – Their Effect on Pregnancy
Pregnancy Offers No Protection
Maybe because we don’t hear about it very often we think sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) aren’t as prolific as they once were. The reality is quite different. In a single year, more than two million pregnant women will be affected by an STD in the US, the very same ones that infect women who are not pregnant. Women and their unborn babies are left vulnerable to STDs – pregnancy offers no protection from them. In fact, pregnant women and their unborn babies are at higher risk for even more devastating consequences from sexually transmitted diseases than women who are not pregnant. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most prolific and common STDs are bacterial vaginosis and genital herpes, which comes with the complement of warts and lesions.
STDs Have Serious Outcomes
Sexually transmitted diseases affect women, pregnant or not, with some serious results. They can cause cervical and uterine cancers, chronic hepatitis, PID (pelvic inflammatory disease), infertility, cirrhosis, and many other complications. The same potential outcomes can affect pregnant women, only the mother is not the only one at risk. Her unborn baby stands to be impacted dramatically as well. Unfortunately, some women have no idea they are infected until after they conceive – because they weren’t screened before they became pregnant. Screening is critical to the safety of both mother and baby if there has been exposure to and STD. Only then can the doctor know how to treat it and how to best help the mother protect herself and her unborn baby.
A pregnant woman may encounter other complications in pregnancy if she has an STD. Early onset of labor, premature birth, premature rupture of the membranes and uterine infections are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ramifications of diseases on pregnancy.
Passing an STD to an Unborn Baby – What Happens?
It is possible for an infected mother to pass the infection to her baby before, during and after birth. There are some sexually transmitted diseases that are able to cross the placenta and infect the baby in utero. Syphilis can cross the placenta and cause developmental problems for the baby. Others, such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia, hepatitis B, and genital herpes can be transmitted to the baby during a vaginal delivery. HIV positive women have an added dimension to transmission in that they can infect their baby through the placenta, during birth and additionally in their breast milk.
The risks to a baby, in the womb and outside the womb are devastating:
- stillbirth – the baby is born dead
- low birth weight – a baby weighing less than five pounds at birth
- conjunctivitis – eye infections
- neonatal sepsis – blood infections
- neurologic damage
- acute hepatitis
- chronic liver disease
Sadly, some of the negative effects on the baby may not be noticed until later in life. Developmental delays, speech impediments, learning difficulties and motor nerve damage won’t be discovered for months or years.
There’s Hope with Screening
There is good news in the mix though, and that is that with proper prenatal care most of the foregoing horrors can be avoided. Screening tests for STDs early in the pregnancy and repeated closer to the delivery date, if necessary, can make the difference in quality of life for the baby and the mother. Some problems can be treated if the infection is found at birth. Bacterially transmitted diseases such as bacterial vaginosis, Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be treated and even cured during pregnancy with the use of antibiotics. Viral STDs like herpes and HIV/AIDs can’t be cured but they can be controlled. It is possible for HIV positive women to receive the appropriate treatment that will keep their baby safer and for women with herpes, a c-section can be performed bypassing the possibility of infection through a vaginal birth.
STD Infections Can Be Avoided
If a woman is not in a monogamous relationship, then the obvious way to avoid infection is to remain celibate for the duration of her pregnancy. Women in long-term monogamous relationships are in the best position. If a woman is not in a long-term relationship, then it is imperative that proper use of latex condoms is applied every time she has intercourse. The life of her baby and her own health is at stake.
Infections are common to life. Learn more about the various infections that can afflict a pregnant woman in our article about infections during pregnancy.