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Maternal and Fetal Infections Overview

Infection is the invasion and growth of microorganisms in the body. The body may respond in different ways depending on the type of infection and the extent of it. One or more of the following can cause an infectious disease:

  • Viruses

  • Bacteria

  • Parasites

  • Fungi

Infectious diseases can range from common illnesses, such as the cold, to deadly illnesses, such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Depending on the specific illness and where you live, an infectious disease can spread in some or all these ways:

  • Sexual transmission. Transmission through sexual contact, including intercourse.

  • Airborne transmission. Transmission through inhaling airborne droplets of the disease. These may exist in the air as a result of a cough or sneeze from an infected person.

  • Blood-borne transmission. Transmission through contact with infected blood, such as when sharing hypodermic needles.

  • Direct skin contact. Transmission through contact with the skin of an infected person.

  • Insect-borne transmission. Transmission through insects, such as mosquitoes. These draw blood from an infected person and then bite a healthy person.

  • Foodborne transmission. Transmission through consuming contaminated food.

  • Waterborne transmission. Transmission through contact with contaminated water.

  • Other mechanisms that can transmit a disease.

In developed countries, most infections are spread through sexual, airborne, blood-borne, and skin contact. Countries with poor community hygiene may still have waterborne transmission.

In pregnancy, infections are a common complication. Pregnant people may be more prone to the effects of infection during pregnancy because the immune system is naturally suppressed. Certain infections may cause problems for the developing fetus and may endanger the health of the birth parent. Some organisms that do not cause problems in nonpregnant people can be dangerous in pregnancy. Other organisms are not harmful for the pregnant person. But they can be harmful to the fetus.

What are the symptoms of an infection?

The symptoms of an infection often depend on the organism causing the infection. Also, infection in pregnancy may or may not have obvious symptoms. Or a pregnant person may show different symptoms of an infection. The symptoms may look like other conditions or health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is an infection diagnosed?

The diagnosis of an infection depends on the symptoms and a history of exposure to the organism. Certain tests are done as part of routine prenatal care to rule out common infections. Some tests help determine the mother's immunity to an infectious disease, such as rubella. Other tests, such as blood tests, cultures, or tissue samples, are used only when needed for diagnosis.

Treatment for an infection

You and your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • Your overall health and past health

  • The type of infection

  • The specific medicines, procedures, or therapies that are safe during pregnancy

  • The risks and benefits of treatment to you and your unborn baby

  • How long the condition is expected to last

  • Your opinion or preference

Prevention of infection

Some infections, such as urinary tract infections, may not be preventable. Prevention of other infections depends on the method of transmission. Pregnant people can reduce their risk of contracting some infectious diseases by not coming into contact with the infecting organism. For example, toxoplasmosis, which is found in cat feces, may be prevented by not having contact with litter boxes. Sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented by not having sexual contact with an infected partner.

Zika virus

The Zika virus is transmitted by infected mosquitoes. It can be transmitted from a person woman to their fetus. You can also get Zika from sexual intercourse with someone infected with Zika.

Prevention of Zika infection

To help prevent infection with the Zika virus:

  • Do not travel to areas with Zika.

  • If you must travel, follow steps to prevent mosquito bites while on your trip.

  • Speak with your primary healthcare provider before your trip.

If your partner lives or has traveled to an area with Zika, use condoms every time you have sex during the pregnancy. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Online Medical Reviewer: Irina Burd MD PhD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.