Is there a concern with chickenpox and pregnancy? If I develop chickenpox while I'm pregnant, could it harm the baby?
from Roger W. Harms, M.D.
Chickenpox (varicella) is a highly contagious viral illness that causes an itchy rash. Most pregnant women are immune to chickenpox, due to either immunization or a childhood bout with chickenpox. If chickenpox develops during pregnancy, the risks depend on the timing.
If chickenpox develops during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, the baby faces a slight risk of congenital varicella syndrome — a rare group of serious birth defects. A baby who has congenital varicella syndrome may experience:
- Scars on the skin
- Muscle and bone defects
- Malformed limbs
- Vision problems
- Mental retardation
If chickenpox develops shortly before delivery, the baby may be born with a potentially life-threatening infection.
If you're considering pregnancy and you're not immune to chickenpox, ask your doctor about the chickenpox vaccine. It's safe for adults, although you'll need to wait at least one month after vaccination before trying to conceive. If you're unsure of your immunity, your doctor can do a simple blood test to find out.
If you're exposed to chickenpox during pregnancy and you're not immune to the illness, contact your doctor 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.
If you develop chickenpox during pregnancy, your doctor may prescribe oral antiviral drugs to reduce the severity of the illness. This may help reduce the risk of complications, such as pneumonia.
If your baby is born with chickenpox, he or she may be treated with an immune globulin. When given promptly, the immune globulin usually reduces the severity of the illness. If needed, antiviral drugs may be given as well.