Chickenpox is a reasonably rare condition in adults as a large proportion of the population have either had chickenpox as a child or been immunised. It is contracted by close contact with someone who has chickenpox, before the blisters have crusted over. If a woman who is pregnant contracts chickenpox it may have serious consequences for both her and her baby.
How do I tell if I have chickenpox?
The typical symptoms of chickenpox are fever and feeling generally unwell, and it may take anywhere from 1-3 weeks after exposure for these to develop. After the initial symptoms, the characteristic skin blisters develop (which can be intensely itchy) and eventually crust over.
What can happen to a mother and her baby?
Chickenpox in pregnant women can be very severe with potentially life threatening complications including pneumonia (chest infection), encephalitis (infection of the brain), or hepatitis (infection of the liver) as well as very uncomfortable blisters on any body surface including the mouth.
In terms of the baby, it depends on what time during the pregnancy the infection occurs. There is no increased risk of miscarriage, however if the infection occurs in the first trimester, then in a very small percentage (1-2%) the baby can have damage to the brain, eyes, limbs or bowel. Further evaluation in a specialist centre would be recommended. If the infection occurs in the middle part of the pregnancy, then babies are born without any effect, but carry the virus in their bodies, similar to adult infections. If infection occurs close to delivery, the baby may be born with chickenpox and will require treatment with antiviral medication.
What happens if you are exposed to chickenpox?
If you have had chickenpox before, you don’t need to worry. If you are unsure, then see your doctor for a blood test to determine your immunity. If you are not immune, then you can receive an injection of immune globulin to possibly prevent or reduce the severity of the infection. This injection can be given up to 10 days after exposure.
Before falling pregnant, I’d recommend having your chickenpox immunity checked and if you are not immune, having the vaccination. If you are not immune and pregnant, then take precautions to reduce the risk of exposure (hand washing, avoiding contact with infected people).
More detailed information can be found at http://www.rcog.org.uk/files/rcog-corp/Chickenpox%20in%20Pregnancy.pdf
The above information doesn’t take the place of a medical consultation so please seek further advice if you have further concerns.