Throughout life, we all encounter many viruses and bacteria.
This page is about infections that can cause problems in pregnancy, their symptoms and what to do if you're worried.
Chickenpox in pregnancy
Chickenpox infection in pregnancy can be dangerous for both you and your baby, so it's important to seek advice early if you think you may have chickenpox.
There's a 90% chance you are immune to chickenpox infection. But if you've never had chickenpox (or you're unsure if you've had it) and you come into contact with a child or adult who does, speak to your GP, obstetrician or midwife immediately. A blood test will find out if you're immune.
CMV in pregnancy
CMV (cytomegalovirus) is a common virus that's part of the herpes group, which can also cause cold sores and chickenpox. CMV infections are common in young children.
Infection can be dangerous during pregnancy as it can cause problems for unborn babies, such as hearing loss, visual impairment or blindness, learning difficulties and epilepsy.
CMV is particularly dangerous to the baby if the pregnant mother has not had the infection before.
It's not always possible to prevent a CMV infection, but you can reduce the risk by:
- washing your hands regularly with soap and hot water, particularly if you have been changing nappies, or work in a nursery or daycare centre
- not kissing young children on the face – it's better to kiss them on the head or give them a hug
- not sharing food or cutlery with young children, and not drinking from the same glass as them
This is particularly important if you have a job that brings you into close contact with young children. In this case, you can have a blood test to find out whether you have previously been infected with CMV.
Group B streptococcus in pregnancy
Group B streptococcus (GBS, or group B strep) rarely causes harm or symptoms.
It causes no problem in most pregnancies but, in a small number, group B strep infects the baby, usually just before or during labour, leading to serious illness.
If you've already had a baby who had a GBS infection, you should be offered antibiotics during labour to reduce the chances of your new baby getting the infection. You should also be offered them during labour if you've had a group B strep urinary tract infection during the pregnancy.
GBS infection of the baby is more likely if:
- you go into premature labour (before 37 weeks of pregnancy)
- your waters break early
- you have a fever during labour
- you currently carry GBS
Your midwife or doctor will assess whether you should be offered antibiotics during labour to protect your baby from being infected.
It's possible to be tested for GBS late in pregnancy. Talk to your doctor or midwife if you have concerns.
Infections transmitted by animals
Cat faeces may contain toxoplasma – an organism that causes toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis can harm your baby.
To reduce the risk of infection:
- avoid emptying cat litter trays while you're pregnant
- if nobody else can empty the litter tray, use disposable rubber gloves – trays should be cleaned daily
- avoid close contact with sick cats
- even if you do not have a cat, wear gloves if gardening in case the soil is contaminated with faeces
- wash your hands and gloves after gardening
- if you do come into contact with cat faeces, wash your hands thoroughly
- follow general food hygiene rules – see how to prepare food safely and how to store food safely
Lambs and sheep can carry an organism that is known to cause miscarriage in ewes. They also carry toxoplasma.
Avoid lambing or milking ewes, as well all contact with newborn lambs. Tell your doctor if you experience flu-like symptoms after coming into contact with sheep.
Research is ongoing to see if pigs can be a source of hepatitis E infection. This infection is dangerous if you're pregnant.
Prevent infections by:
- cooking meat and meat products thoroughly
- avoid eating raw or undercooked meat and shellfish
- washing your hands thoroughly before preparing, serving and eating food
Hepatitis B is a virus that infects the liver. Many people with hepatitis B will show no sign of illness, but they can be carriers and may infect others.
The virus is spread by having sex with an infected person without using a condom, and by direct contact with infected blood. If you have hepatitis B or are infected during pregnancy, you can pass the infection on to your baby at birth.
You'll be offered a blood test for hepatitis B as part of your antenatal care. Babies who are at risk should be given the hepatitis B vaccine at birth to prevent infection and serious liver disease later on in life.
The hepatitis C virus infects the liver. Many people with hepatitis C have no symptoms and are unaware they are infected. The virus is transmitted by direct contact with infected blood.
In people who take illegal drugs, this can be a result of sharing blood-contaminated needles.
People who received a blood transfusion in the UK prior to September 1991, or blood products prior to 1986, may also be at risk.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted by receiving medical or dental treatment in countries where hepatitis C is common and infection control may be poor, or by having sex with an infected partner.
If you have hepatitis C, you may pass the infection on to your baby, although the risk is much lower than with hepatitis B or HIV. This cannot currently be prevented.
Your baby can be tested for hepatitis C and, if they're infected, they can be referred for specialist assessment.
Herpes in pregnancy
Genital herpes infection can be dangerous for a newborn baby.
You can get herpes through genital contact with an infected person or from oral sex with someone who has cold sores (oral herpes).
Initial infection causes painful blisters or ulcers on the genitals. Less severe outbreaks usually occur for some years afterwards.
Treatment is available if your first infection occurs in pregnancy. If your first infection occurs near the end of pregnancy or during labour, a caesarean section may be recommended to reduce the risk of passing herpes on to your baby.
If you or your partner have herpes, use condoms or avoid sex during an outbreak. Avoid unprotected oral sex as herpes is very easy to pass on.
Tell your midwife or doctor if either you or your partner have recurring herpes or develop sores.
HIV in pregnancy
You'll be offered a confidential HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) test as part of your routine antenatal care. Your midwife or doctor will discuss the test with you, and counselling will be available if the result is positive.
Current evidence suggests that if you're HIV positive, in good health and without symptoms of the infection you're unlikely to be adversely affected by pregnancy.
However, HIV can be passed to your baby during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding or chestfeeding.
If you're diagnosed with HIV, you and your doctor will need to discuss the management of your pregnancy and birth to reduce the risk of infection for your baby.
Treatment in pregnancy greatly reduces the risk of passing on HIV to the baby – from 1 in 4 to fewer than 1 in 100. Your baby will be tested for HIV at birth and at regular intervals for 18 months.
You'll be advised not to breastfeed or chestfeed, as HIV can be transmitted to your baby in this way.
If you're HIV positive, talk to your doctor or midwife about your own health and the options open to you. You can also contact organisations such as Positively UK or the Terrence Higgins Trust for information and support.
Video: HIV and pregnancy
This video explores Sarah's story of HIV and pregnancy.
Media review due: 16 November 2023
Slapped cheek syndrome in pregnancy
Slapped cheek syndrome is common in children. It typically causes a rash on the face.
Slapped cheek syndrome is highly infectious and can be harmful to the baby.
If you come into contact with anyone who is infected, you should talk to your doctor, who can carry out a blood test to check whether you're immune. In most cases, the baby is not affected if you have slapped cheek syndrome.
Rubella (german measles) in pregnancy
But if you develop rubella in the first 4 months of pregnancy, it can lead to serious problems, including birth defects and miscarriage.
If you're pregnant, you should contact your GP or midwife as soon as possible if:
- you come into contact with someone who has rubella
- you have a rash or come into contact with anyone who does
- you have symptoms of rubella
It's unlikely you have rubella in these circumstances, but you may need a blood test to check.
If you're pregnant and are not sure whether you've had 2 doses of the MMR vaccine, ask your GP practice to check your vaccination history.
If you have not had both doses or there's no record, you should ask for the vaccine when you go for your 6-week postnatal check after the birth. This will protect you in any future pregnancies.
MMR vaccine cannot be given during pregnancy.
STIs in pregnancy
STIs often have no symptoms, so you may not know if you have one. However, many STIs can affect your baby's health both during pregnancy and after the birth.
If you have any reason to believe you or your partner may have an STI, go for a check-up as soon as possible. You can ask your GP or midwife. If you prefer, you can go to a sexual health clinic. Confidentiality is guaranteed.
The Zika virus can cause birth defects if you catch it while pregnant. In particular, it can cause the baby to have an abnormally small head (microcephaly).
Zika does not naturally occur in the UK. Seek travel health advice before your trip if you plan to go to an affected area, such as:
- South or Central America
- the Caribbean
- southeast Asia
- the Pacific region – for example, Fiji
While pregnant, it's recommended that you postpone non-essential travel to high-risk areas.
It is also recommended that you avoid getting pregnant while travelling and for 3 months after returning to the UK.
Zika is spread by mosquitoes. You can reduce your risk of mosquito bites by using insect repellent and wearing loose clothing that covers your arms and legs.