Sexually transmitted diseases pose unique risks for women who are pregnant and their baby. This is why it’s important for an expectant mother or a anyone wanting to get pregnant to get tested for STDs as part of her prenatal care. An undetected STD can lead to serious health issues down the way for a mother and her baby.
STDs Can Affect Mother and Baby
We don’t want to scare you by any means, but we do want to caution you! Getting tested for STDs before and during pregnancy is essential to keep you and your baby healthy. We hear a lot of questions about STDs and pregnancy, and we’ll do our best to answer those here. However, the best thing to do is to talk to your provider right away if you suspect you may have an STD.
How Sexually Transmitted Diseases Affect Pregnancies
Unfortunately, STDs can complicate pregnancies and cause serious health issues for you and your baby if not caught early or left untreated. These issues may be seen before giving birth, at birth, or many years later. STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and genital herpes can be passed on from a mother to her baby during delivery as the baby passes through the infected birth canal. Other STDs like syphilis, CMV, and HIV, can affect a baby before birth.
STD testing is typically part of your prenatal care and can help determine whether you or your sexual partner(s) are infected.
Left undetected or untreated, STDs during pregnancy can cause:
- Eye infections
- Blood infections
- Brain damage
- Chronic liver disease
- Preterm labor and delivery
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Low birth weight
- Birth defects
- Illness in the newborn
- Newborn death
STDs pose unique health risks to babies:
- HIV/AIDS: Can be passed from a mother to baby during pregnancy, during delivery, or while breastfeeding.
- Gonorrhea: Can be passed from mother to baby as the baby passes through the birth canal. This can cause the baby to get eye infections, pneumonia, or infections of the joints or blood.
- Chlamydia: Similarly to gonorrhea, it can be passed from mother to baby as the baby passes through the birth canal, leading to eye infections or pneumonia. It’s also been associated with preterm birth and other complications.
- Genital Herpes: If newly infected with genital herpes while pregnant, a woman is 30-60% more likely of infecting their baby, particularly during delivery. Genital herpes is especially serious in newborns and is potentially life-threatening. It can lead to brain damage, blindness, and organ damage. If you’ve had herpes in the past or currently have it, talk to your doctor about medications to control it and reduce the risk of outbreak during pregnancy.
- Hepatitis B: Infection with Hepatitis B can be passed to a baby during pregnancy, but the likelihood of it depends on when a mother became infected. If she was infected early on in her pregnancy, the chance that baby will also be infected will be about 10%. If she was infected later in her pregnancy, the chance that baby will also be infected rises to about 90%. Hepatitis B can be very severe for babies and can be life-threatening. It can lead to liver scarring or failure, and even cancer. Infected babies also have a very high risk of becoming carriers for hepatitis B and can spread it to others.
Talk to your provider about treatment options for you and your baby.
Testing for STDs During Pregnancy
Women who are pregnant can be infected by the same STDs as women who aren’t. And all women run the risk of contracting ‘silent’ STDs (ones that are free of symptoms), meaning they may not even know they are infected.
Testing for STDs during pregnancy can help doctors identify and treat any that arise before you exhibit symptoms or before they become more serious or life-threatening. If you are diagnosed with an STD while pregnant, your partner(s) should also be tested and treated.
Treating STDs During Pregnancy
Not all STDs can be cured, but a doctor can help you take steps to protect yourself and your baby. To reduce the chance of an STD passing along to a baby (depending on the STD), some doctors may recommend a cesarean delivery to ensure the baby doesn’t pick up the STD when exiting the birth canal. Another example is that most hospitals treat babies eyes with an antibiotic ointment after birth. This can prevent blindness from exposure to gonorrhea or chlamydia during delivery in case the mother has an undetected STD.
How to Prevent an STD During Pregnancy
There are a few different ways you can prevent yourself from STDs during pregnancy, including:
- Abstaining from sex
- Staying with a long-term, monogamous, uninfected partner
- Wait to have sex until you and your partner(s) have tested negative for STDs
- Use latex condoms and dental dams correctly and consistently
STDs Can Affect Your Ability to Have Children in the Future
STDs can also affect your ability to have children. If left untreated, even an asymptomatic STD can lead to an episode of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)- one of the leading causes of preventable infertility. Women who’ve had PID have scarring on their fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs. This can make it difficult for any sperm to reach a woman’s eggs. It can also lead to ectopic pregnancies, which occurs when a fertilized egg doesn’t get to the uterus before implanting. Ectopic pregnancies can be extremely dangerous.
STDs in men can cause infertility. The male reproductive tract, including the epididymis and urethra, can be damaged by the infection. HIV can also reduce a man’s semen quality, making it harder for them to get their partner pregnant. STDs in men are usually more likely to cause symptoms than in women, meaning they’re typically more likely to be treated in time, but that’s not always the case.
Is it Time to Be Tested?
Most STDs and their side effects can be prevented if you are screened and treated appropriately. The issue of unnoticed and untreated STDs can cause extensive damage, which is why STD screening is so important. Regular STD screenings can help catch asymptomatic infections and prevent the spread of STDs. Do your part to prevent spreading and to protect your health by getting tested!