Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(8):1583-1584

What is a viral respiratory infection?

When a viral infection attacks your air passages, it can affect your breathing and cause other symptoms. These infections can be passed to and from other people. The flu and common cold are two kinds of viral respiratory infections. Other respiratory viruses are:

  • Chickenpox

  • Fifth disease

  • Cytomegalovirus (say: SI-toe-MEG-ah-low-vi-russ, or CMV for short)

  • Rubella (say: roo-BELL-ah, also called German measles)

What if I’m around someone with a viral respiratory infection when I’m pregnant?

You can come into contact with viruses at work and at home. The infected person is usually a child. Most of the time, you won’t get sick. If you do get sick, most viruses will not hurt your baby. Some viruses, though, can cause miscarriage or birth defects.

If you are exposed to chickenpox, fifth disease, CMV, or rubella while you’re pregnant, you should tell your doctor right away. He or she will want to know how much contact you’ve had with the infected person. Your doctor might ask if you kissed or held the infected child. Try to find out when the child got sick and whether he or she has been to a doctor.

What should I do if I’m exposed to chickenpox while I’m pregnant?

Chickenpox can be spread very easily. It can be serious during pregnancy. Sometimes, chickenpox can cause birth defects. If you’ve had chickenpox, you can’t get it again, and your baby will be fine. If you haven’t had chickenpox or if you’re not sure, see your doctor right away. Your doctor will do a blood test to see if you are immune.

If your blood test shows that you are not immune, you can take medicines to keep from getting very sick. These medicines might help protect your baby from chickenpox.

What should I do if I’m exposed to fifth disease while I’m pregnant?

Fifth disease is common in children. Half of all adults are not immune to fifth disease and can catch it from children.

Children with fifth disease can get a rash on their body. They may have red cheeks that look like they’ve been slapped. Adults with fifth disease usually do not have this rash, but they might have sore joints.

Fifth disease does not cause birth defects, but it can cause blood problems in your baby that can be deadly. Your baby might need to have a blood transfusion while he or she is still in your womb.

If you get fifth disease early in your pregnancy, you could have a miscarriage. If you are exposed to fifth disease, call your doctor. He or she might do a blood test to see if you’re immune. You also might need a test to see if your baby has been infected.

What if I’m exposed to CMV while I’m pregnant?

CMV usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, so you may not know if you have it. It is the most common infection that can be passed from a mother to her baby. It can cause birth defects. One in every 100 pregnant women will get CMV.

It’s important to protect yourself from CMV because there is no way to treat it. Women who work in day care centers or health care settings have the highest risk of infection. Pregnant women with these jobs should wash their hands after touching diapers and try not to get too close to babies. If you think you’ve been exposed to someone who has CMV, see your doctor right away.

What if I’m exposed to influenza while I’m pregnant?

Influenza (the flu) hardly ever causes birth defects. If you get the flu while you’re pregnant, it may be more serious for you than for your baby. You might get very sick. All pregnant women should get a flu shot.

What if I’m exposed to rubella while I’m pregnant?

Rubella used to be a common cause of birth defects, but today it is rare. If you have not already been tested, your doctor might do a test at your first prenatal visit to see if you are immune. If you are not immune, you should get a shot after your baby is born. If you are exposed to rubella while you are pregnant, you can have blood tests to be sure you’re immune.

What about other viral infections?

Most other respiratory viruses do not seem to increase the normal risk of birth defects

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