Chickenpox and pregnancy: What are the concerns?

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Chickenpox and pregnancy: What are the concerns?

Question

What are the risks associated with chickenpox and pregnancy?

No name given
Florida

Answer

Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral illness that causes an itchy rash. If you develop chickenpox (varicella) during pregnancy, the risks depend on the timing.

If chickenpox develops during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy — particularly between weeks 8 and 20 — the baby faces a slight risk of a rare group of serious birth defects known as congenital varicella syndrome. A baby who has congenital varicella syndrome may develop:

  • Scars on the skin
  • Muscle and bone defects
  • Malformed limbs
  • Vision problems
  • Mental retardation

The second window of vulnerability is at the end of pregnancy. If chickenpox develops during the few days before delivery, the baby may be born with a potentially life-threatening infection.

Most pregnant women are immune to chickenpox, due to either immunization or a childhood bout with chickenpox. If you're considering pregnancy and you're not immune to chickenpox, ask your health care provider about the chickenpox vaccine. It's safe for adults, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends waiting at least four weeks after vaccination before trying to conceive. If you're unsure of your immunity, your health care provider can do a simple blood test to find out.

If you develop chickenpox at any point during pregnancy, you're at high risk of potentially serious complications — such as pneumonia. If you're exposed to chickenpox during pregnancy and you're not immune to the illness, contact your health care provider immediately. He or she may recommend an injection of an immune globulin product that contains antibodies to the chickenpox virus. When given within 96 hours after exposure, the immune globulin can prevent chickenpox or reduce its severity. Unfortunately, it isn't clear if this treatment helps protect the developing baby.

If you develop chickenpox during pregnancy, your health care provider may prescribe oral antiviral drugs to reduce the severity of the illness, as well as the risk of complications.

If your baby is born with chickenpox, he or she may be treated with an immune globulin shortly after birth. When given promptly, the immune globulin usually reduces the severity of the illness. If needed, antiviral drugs may be given as well.

Last Updated: 2010-09-02
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