Herpes is one of the most common health conditions caused by a virus. Herpes symptoms can be inconvenient, but the virus doesn’t put your health in danger.
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. If you have genital herpes, it’s possible to transmit the HSV to your baby, so you’ll need to make a plan with your doctor to keep that from happening.
But rest assured, most people with genital herpes give birth to healthy babies and don’t pass on the virus.
Here’s what we know about having gential herpes when you’re pregnant.
There are two main categories or types of herpes simplex virus:
- HSV-1. Primarily transmitted orally, HSV-1 generally causes oral sores which are often called cold sores or fever blisters. However, HSV-1 can also cause genital blisters if transmitted during oral sex.
- HSV-2. Generally transmitted via sexual contact, HSV-2, most often causes genital herpes – sores or blisters in the genital area. HSV-2 can also cause oral infections through exposure during oral sex, but it’s the genital sores that are a risk during delivery.
Genital herpes refers to herpes blisters or sores in the genital area. The herpe virus may be transmitted to an infant during a vaginal delivery if the baby comes into contact with genital herpes blisters or sores.
It’s estimated that 22 percent of pregnant women in the United States have HSV-2, and 2 percent acquire a genital herpes infection during pregnancy. That means that you certainly aren’t the first person to have questions.
While there is no cure for genital herpes, there are medications you can take to reduce symptoms, prevent future outbreaks, and reduce the risk of transmission.
Herpes is transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s fluid, blood, or saliva. Genital herpes is transmitted through sexual contact including oral sex. That’s why genital herpes is primarily thought of as a sexually transmitted virus.
You can get a herpes infection without knowing it. The virus can be asymptomatic, meaning that there are no symptoms to notice. The World Health Organization (WHO)
After you’ve had an initial outbreak of herpes simplex, the virus remains present in your body. Future outbreaks of herpes sores are most likely to occur in the first few months or years of you having the virus.
As time goes on, your body develops more antibody protection against the virus. These antibodies mean that the virus tends to be less active once you’ve had herpes for a while.
Genital herpes is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection.
Symptoms of genital herpes during pregnancy are similar to symptoms when you aren’t pregnant.
Symptoms of a new outbreak of genital herpes include:
- painful sores on the genital area
- burning during urination
- swollen lymph nodes
- body aches
If you develop a herpes infection for the first time during pregnancy, your symptoms may present as more severe or noticeable than they would in a nonpregnant person.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) currently does not recommend that every pregnant person is screened for herpes during pregnancy. Your provider may recommend that you are tested for herpes if:
- you know or suspect that a sexual partner has genital herpes
- you notice what could be symptoms of herpes
- you have never been tested for herpes before
Of course, you can also simply ask your doctor or healthcare professional for a herpes test if you are concerned that you might have it.
To diagnosis herpes, a viral culture may be taken from your genitals using a cotton swab. The swab is sent to a lab to test for viruses and bacteria.
An antigen blood test may also be preformed to see if you have the herpes virus in your system.
If you have genital herpes, you may be prescribed an oral antiviral medication, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famciclovir starting at around 35 weeks to help reduce the chances that you’ll have an outbreak of genital herpes at the time of delivery. The drugs can’t cure genital herpes, but they can help speed up healing if you have an outbreak of genital herpes and suppress future outbreaks while you get ready to have your baby.
As your labor begins, your doctor will carefully check for any genital herpes lesions – blisters or sores. If you don’t have any signs of an active outbreak of genital herpes when labor starts, you will probably be able to have a vaginal delivery.
If there are genital herpes lesions present during your labor, you will likely need to have a cesarean delivery to prevent tranmission of the herpes virus to the baby during delivery. Your doctor will discuss your options with you prior to your due date.
Your risk factors for contracting genital herpes are the same during pregnancy as they would normally be. Your risk factors for HSV are linked to being directly exposed to the virus. Risk factors include:
- being female
- having a compromised or weakened immune system
- having multiple sex partners
When babies contract herpes, it’s known as neonatal herpes. Also called birth-acquired herpes, neonatal herpes can happen if your baby is exposed to genital herpes during vaginal delivery.
Neonatal herpes is considered rare, but when it does happen, there can be serious complications, such as permanent injury to the baby’s nervous system, developmental disabilities, and death.
The risk to your baby is greatest if you acquire HSV for the first time during the third trimester of pregnancy. That’s because the levels of the HSV in your system will be highest during that time, and you’ll have fewer protective antibodies to pass on to the baby prior to delivery.
If you contract a genital herpes infection during the third trimester, the risk of passing the virus to your baby during delivery is
Genital herpes can present challenges during pregnancy. But, unless you’ve only recently acquired the virus and it’s late in your pregnancy, your chances of passing herpes to your baby are low.
It’s important to get a proper diagnosis if you’ve been exposed to genetal herpes so that you and your doctor or healthcare professional can make a plan to avoid passing the herpes virus to your baby.