If you’re pregnant and carrying a sexually transmitted infection (STI), you probably have a lot of questions: Can my baby get my STI? How will my STI affect breastfeeding? How do I manage my STI during pregnancy?
In this post, we’ll probe each of those important questions while examining three of the most common STIs, including HPV, chlamydia, and herpes.
Coping with an STI During Pregnancy
First, realize that you are not alone. Nearly 20 million American adults are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection every year. These STIs may be challenging to cope with at any stage in life, but pregnancy presents a myriad of unique challenges. The most pressing issue for many mothers is whether they can transmit their STI to baby either during pregnancy or delivery. The short answer is yes, but each STI is different in terms of transmission risks.
Let’s look at the three most common STIs in the United States to understand how each one affects you and baby.
HPV and Pregnancy
HPV, short for human papilloma virus, is usually detected during an abnormal pap smear. Some strains of HPV may cause genital warts, while others increase the risk of cervical cancer. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the U.S. currently have an HPV infection, demonstrating not only how common the disease is but also how potentially transient. In other words, in many women, the HPV infection will resolve itself and not cause any problems.
But for expectant moms with lingering HPV infections, how likely is it to transmit the virus to baby? The good news is that transmitting an HPV infection to your unborn baby is extremely rare. Vaginal delivery should be safe in most cases, with the exception of women who have a significant outbreak of genital warts. The Department of Health and Human Services elaborates:
“Most women who had genital warts, but no longer have them, do not have problems during pregnancy or birth. For women who have genital warts during pregnancy, the warts may grow or become larger and bleed. In rare cases, a pregnant woman can pass HPV to her baby during vaginal delivery. Rarely, a baby who is exposed to HPV gets warts in the throat or voice box.”
In such cases, obstetricians may recommend a C-section to protect the baby.
Chlamydia and Pregnancy
Often presenting with no symptoms, chlamydia is a bacterial infection. Some women may experience vaginal discharge or painful urination, but many do not, which is why annual STI screenings at your gynecologist’s office are so crucial, especially during pregnancy. Furthermore, untreated chlamydia infections can lead to preterm labor as well as other serious complications for baby during delivery, including eye infections and even pneumonia.
As a bacterial infection, chlamydia can be successfully treated with a course of antibiotics. Your doctor can prescribe a safe dosage for you during pregnancy to clear the infection and eliminate the possibility of complications for baby.
Herpes and Pregnancy
This common viral infection presents as painful blisters on the lips (cold sores) or in the genital and anal regions. There are treatments for herpes but no cure, which makes this STI a particularly frustrating one to cope with.
It is also possible to transmit herpes regardless of whether symptoms are visible, due to asymptomatic viral shedding. Unfortunately, this means that it is easy to pass the herpes virus onto baby even if you rarely experience herpes outbreaks.
Additionally, birth-acquired herpes is a version of the infection that begins in the womb, making it a congenital issue that cannot be prevented. The Boston Children’s Hospital cites birth-acquired or congenital herpes as rare, occurring in 30 out of 100,000 live births, but the complications can be serious. Central nervous system disorders, blindness, and organ damage are possible outcomes for babies exposed to herpes in utero or during childbirth.
So, what can a concerned mom do? While there’s no way to prevent an infection from occurring in the uterus, you can discuss the option of a C-section with your doctor if you’re worried about transmitting the virus to your child through vaginal delivery. You can also practice relaxation techniques to reduce herpes outbreaks, which may be linked to stress. Taking your prenatal vitamins with their range of stress-reducing B vitamins may be another way to ward off herpes outbreaks.
Breastfeeding with an STI
Breastfeeding is an incredible bonding experience between mother and baby. If you are planning on breastfeeding your infant with an STI, know that in most cases it is safe. However, with some STIs like HIV, breastfeeding can be dangerous. HIV is spread through bodily fluids, including breastmilk, so you may want to explore bottle feeding if you have been diagnosed with the virus.
In terms of the common STIs discussed in this post, breastfeeding can be a safe and nourishing experience for baby. Chlamydia and HPV pose no risks to breastfeeding, while herpes can be problematic if an open sore makes contact with baby. Therefore, in general, it is advisable to be mindful of contact with baby, such as kissing that sweet-scented head, when you are dealing with a herpes outbreak. Also, if you are being treated for any STI, check with your doctor to ensure that breastfeeding is safe.
Speak to Your OB/GYN about STIs During Pregnancy
STIs are never easy to deal with, but they are manageable — and there are measures you can take to protect your unborn baby. Be sure to reach out to your OB/GYN if you have any concerns, and be vigilant about annual STI screenings to safeguard both you and baby.
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