The fact is that STDs contracted during pregnancy can be life threatening. All women need to be aware of the potential consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, even before they are pregnant, so they can learn how to protect themselves and future children against STD infection.
Although the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases for pregnant women can be the same as for non-pregnant women; these consequences may have devastating effects that can lead to:
- cervical cancer and other cancers,
- chronic hepatitis,
- other complications.
Sadly, there are often no symptoms in women with sexually transmitted diseases and a woman may not be aware she is infected until she is already pregnant.
Other complications that can occur as a result of sexully transmitted diseases in pregnancy include:
- early onset of labor
- premature rupture of the uterine membranes that surround the baby
- uterine infection after delivery.
Transmission of sexually transmitted diseases from the pregnant women to her fetus, newborn, or infant can occur before, during, or after birth. Certain STDs such as syphilis are able to cross the placenta and infect the fetus-- potentially affecting fetal development. Other sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, and genital herpes can be transmitted to the infant during vaginal delivery. Women who are HIV positive can transmit the virus that causes AIDS to the fetus through the placenta during pregnancy or infection can occur during the process of birth. Unique to HIV is the fact that transmission can occur in infants as a result of breastfeeding by an infected mother.
Sexually transmitted diseases can cause devastating consequences to the baby that include:
- low birth weight
- an eye infection called conjunctivitis
- an infection in the blood called neonatal sepsis
- neurologic damage such as brain damage or motor function disorder
- blindness, deafness, or other congenital abnormalities
- acute hepatitis
- chronic liver disease
Unfortunately, not all of the possible consequences of STD infections may be apparent at birth. Some of the affects of birth-related sexually transmitted disease may not be detected for months or sometimes even years.
On the positive side for pregnant women, bacterial sexually transmitted diseases such as bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be treated and cured during pregnancy. Treatment for these bacterial STDs is with prescribed antibiotics. Unfortunately, viral types of STDs such as genital herpes and HIV are treatable during pregnancy to reduce the symptoms but are not curable. Pregnant women infected with HIV who receive treatment during pregnancy can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their infants. If a women infected by genital herpes has active genital herpes lesions at the time of delivery, a cesarean section is often recommended to protect the newborn against infection.
A long term monogamous relationship is the best protection for both pregnant and non-pregnant women against sexually transmitted diseases. However, if a woman's partner is not monogamous, or if she is not sure her partner is monogamous, pregnant women should consider using latex condoms during each and every act of sexual intercourse to protect herself and her unborn baby against the harmful effects of sexually transmitted diseases. While protection is critical during the entire pregnancy, it is particularly important during the third trimester of pregnancy when an active STD infection can cause the greatest consequences to both the mother and the baby.
If you suspect you may have a sexually transmitted disease and need further information call the STD Hotline at 1-800-227-8922 or the HIV Hotline at 1-800-342-AIDS.
Adapted from the CDC