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 the infection. 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 of the following 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.

  • Insectborne 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 experience waterborne transmission.

In pregnancy, infections are a common complication. Women may be more susceptible 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 mother. Some organisms that do not cause problems in nonpregnant women can be dangerous in pregnancy. Other organisms are not harmful for the pregnant woman, but 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 they may show different symptoms of an infection. The symptoms of an infection may look like other conditions or medical 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

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history

  • The type of infection

  • What specific medicines, procedures, or therapies are safe during pregnancy

  • Comparing 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. Women can reduce their risk of contracting some infectious diseases by avoiding contact with the infecting organism. For example, toxoplasmosis, which is found in cat feces, may be avoided 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 mosquitos. It can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus. You can also get Zika from sexual intercourse with someone infected with Zika.

Prevention of Zika infection

Recommendations to avoid the Zika virus include the following:

  • 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.