Pregnancy and Breastfeeding with Hepatitis C: What You Need to Know
Mothers with the Virus
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne illness in the United States. It affects about 3.2 million Americans. Mothers infected with hepatitis C transmit the virus to 4,000 newborn children every year, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
If you are an expecting mother who has been exposed to the hepatitis C virus, you may have questions about your and your baby’s health.
Click through the slideshow to learn more about your pregnancy and breastfeeding with hepatitis C.
The Risk of Passing the Infection On to Your Baby
If you have hepatitis C, you have a three to five percent chance of passing the infection on to your child, according to a study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. The same study found that the risk rises to nearly 20 percent if you also have untreated HIV.
The good news is that hepatitis C doesn’t tend to have a negative effect on the course of the pregnancy or the birth weight of the baby.
Risk Factors and Symptoms
The main risk factor for hepatitis C is injecting illegal drugs, either currently or in the past. Healthcare workers stuck by needles, and sex partners of hepatitis C patients are also at risk. You have a slight risk of contracting hepatitis from tattoo needles and infected ink.
The hepatitis C virus infects the liver. This liver infection can lead to nausea and jaundice, which shows up as yellow skin and eyes. You may have no symptoms, though. And if you are lucky, your body may clear the virus on its own.
Should You Get Tested?
If you believe you have hepatitis C, you may want to check with your doctor about getting a combination of blood tests. The hepatitis C test is not routine for pregnant women. The test is normally only for people who fall in one of the risk categories.
Even if you only used intravenous drugs one time, you are at risk and should get tested for hepatitis C. If you test positive, the baby will also need to be tested after birth.
Caesarian Sections Versus Natural Delivery
You might wonder if a natural delivery increases the risk of mother-to-child transmission of the virus. But it doesn’t appear that’s the case.
Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University looked into18 studies conducted between 1947 and 2012 on how a baby is delivered relates to transmission of the virus. They could not find a clear connection between delivery method and the risk of transmitting the virus. The researchers did not argue in favor of a caesarian section to avoid transmission.
However, the researchers do point out that the studies were marred by small sample sizes and methodology drawbacks.
If you are a mother with hepatitis C, it is acceptable for you to breastfeed your child, according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Researchers do not believe the virus can be transmitted through breast milk. Some studies did not find higher rates of hepatitis C in breastfed infants than in formula-fed babies.
Talk to your doctor about your breastfeeding plans. If you have HIV and hepatitis C, this may be a consideration against breastfeeding.
Nipple Cracks or Bleeding
It is not certain if breastfeeding with cracked or bleeding nipples can spread the hepatitis C virus, according to the CDC.
However, hepatitis C can be transmitted by infected blood, so the CDC advises against breastfeeding if you have cracked or bleeding nipples.
The organization suggests that mothers should discard their breast milk until nipples are completely healed.
Testing Your Little One
Between birth and 18 months, your baby will have antibodies for hepatitis C acquired from your body. This means an antibody test to determine if the virus is present won’t be reliable. However, you can try a viral test when your child is between three and 18 months.
The most reliable method for finding out if your child has hepatitis C is to have them tested after they turn two years old, using a test similar to the one used for adults.
The good news is your child has a 40 percent chance of clearing the virus spontaneously by age two, according to the American Liver Foundation. Some children even clear the virus on their own as late as seven years old.
- Airoldi, J. (2006). Hepatitis C and pregnancy. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 61(10), 666-72. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16978426
- Cottrell, E. (2013). Reducing risk for mother-to-infant transmission of hepatitis C virus: a systematic review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Annals of Internal Medicine, 158(2), 109-13. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23437438
- Fabrey, Stephen C., Narasimhan, R. Anand (2006). Hepatitis C: A Lahey Clinic Guide. Burlington, Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Floreani, A. (2013). Hepatitis C and pregnancy. The World Journal of Gastroenterology, 19(40), 6714-6720. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from the PubMed database.
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- Newman, J., & Pitman, T. (2006). The ultimate breastfeeding book of answers: the most comprehensive problem-solving guide to breastfeeding from the foremost expert in North America (Rev. and updated. ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press.