How Having Herpes Complicates Childbirth

Mother having an elective C-section delivery

Herpes and childbirth is a touchy subject. It's important to note that just because you have herpes doesn't mean you won't be able to have children, but there are some considerations that come into play.

Basic Facts about Herpes

Genital Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by one of two herpes simplex viruses. Herpes cause blister-like sores around or on the genitals and occur in outbreaks. However, even when someone is not having an outbreak, they may still pass herpes on to sexual partners.

There is no cure for herpes. While there are medications that can lessen an outbreak, once you get it, the infection can stay in the body forever. Lastly, anyone who has unprotected sex can contract herpes.

Complications of herpes include (but may not be limited to):

  • Painful sores
  • Psychological distress
  • Extra pain in individuals with suppressed immune systems
  • Increased susceptibility to other viruses, like HIV

Learn more about the basics of herpes:

Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet

Herpes and Dating

Herpes Complications Related to Pregnancy

The herpes virus, if passed on to a baby, can cause major infections, brain damage, physical disabilities, and even death. That's one reason why herpes and childbirth is such an important topic.

Luckily, it's not common for the herpes virus to be passed on to a baby. Most women who have herpes and give birth have perfectly healthy children. But, since there is always a risk of a baby contracting herpes from his mother, special care and considerations must be provided during pregnancy.

How Babies Are Infected With Herpes

It's very rare that a baby contracts the herpes infection during pregnancy. Some research estimates that fewer than 5 percent of babies contract herpes while in the womb. This could happen if the herpes virus manages to cross the placenta, but again, it's very rare. Most babies who do catch herpes are exposed during birth if they come into contact with an outbreak in the birth canal. If a mother is having an active herpes outbreak at the time of her baby's birth, the risks of the baby contracting herpes are greater.

Increased Risks

Some babies are at greater risk than others for catching herpes.

  • As noted above, if a mother is having an outbreak at the time of birth the risks increase.
  • If a woman is not receiving proper prenatal care, her baby is at a greater risk. This is one reason why early and ongoing prenatal care is vital. Even if a woman has never had an outbreak, she could still be infected with the herpes virus.
  • premature birth increases risk.
  • If a mother has a new case of herpes that was contracted in her last trimester, her baby is more likely to also become infected.

The reason a baby is more at risk in a mother who contracts herpes during late pregnancy is because our bodies are made to protect babies in the womb. Multiple research notes that pregnant women pass on important antibodies to their babies. If a mother has the herpes virus, that's an antibody that will be passed on to her baby, which provides a large amount of protection to the baby.

One theory is that if a mother contracts herpes in late pregnancy the antibodies have a shorter time frame in which to protect a baby. The later in pregnancy that a mother contracts herpes, the more risk for the baby. Since you can catch herpes and other STDs during pregnancy, it's important to follow healthy sexual partner habits, such as using barrier protection like condoms and limiting your sexual partners.

Issues Surrounding Herpes and Childbirth

Because a baby can be exposed to herpes during childbirth, there are some herpes and childbirth considerations that are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by health care providers.

The Mayo Clinic suggests the following precautions, treatments, and prevention tips regarding women who are pregnant:

  • C-sections (Cesarean sections) are commonly recommended if a woman is having an active outbreak at the time that labor begins. This can limit the baby's exposure to the virus.
  • If you're pregnant, be sure to watch for signs of herpes, such as sores, during pregnancy spotting, and pain or itching in the genital area.
  • Antiviral medications for herpes may be suggested. Your health care provider may recommend medication throughout your pregnancy or during late pregnancy to prevent an outbreak from occurring around the time of labor and birth.

Learn about treatments for herpes during pregnancy:

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How Having Herpes Complicates Childbirth