February is National Prenatal Infection Awareness Month. As we battle the cold and flu season, I realize this might be a good time to remind women about these illnesses and other infections that you’re more susceptible to when you’re pregnant: listeria and toxoplasmosis.
I advise my patients to take specific precautions to protect themselves and their babies from these common infections. During pregnancy, women are up to 10 times more likely to get sick than healthy adults.
Flu season usually peaks during the winter months, especially January and February. Pregnancy increases the risk of escalating to pneumonia and requiring hospitalization. Since the flu is highly contagious and the flu is spread through the air, I recommend that my patients take the flu vaccine. Always check with your physician before getting the vaccine. Besides the flu vaccine, the best ways to prevent the flu are avoiding people who are sick, washing your hands often, and the other usual methods to avoid the flu.
Unlike the flu, listeria is caused by eating contaminated food, and it is one of the more rare and serious infections. Pregnant women should avoid food such as deli meats, unpasteurized soft cheeses, sushi, and refrigerated meat spreads to prevent exposure to the bacteria. I also encourage my patients to set their refrigerator at 40° F (4° C) or below and the freezer at 0° F (-18° C), and refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of eating it.
Women who get infected with listeria may experience fever, chills, upset stomach, fatigue and aches. We treat it with antibiotics that will protect your baby. If you’re exposed to Listeria bacteria but don’t show any of the usual symptoms, you don’t need to be tested or treated for it.
Another foodborne illness is toxoplasmosis. Pregnant women can be infected by eating raw or undercooked infected meat, contaminated produce or water, or by handling soil or cat litter. Although the number of women who get infected is small (I haven’t treated one in the past three years), your baby’s risk of becoming infected will increase as you get further along in your pregnancy.
Symptoms of toxoplasmosis include swollen lymph nodes, aches, fatigue, fever, sore throat or rash. If your physician suspects that you’re infected, he or she will conduct a blood test. If those test results are positive, you will be prescribed an antibiotic to lower the chance of passing it on to your baby.
In general, pregnant women should follow their physician’s recommendations on preventive vaccinations, foods to avoid, and other ways to stay healthy during National Prenatal Infection Awareness Month and throughout the year.
Dr. Katherine Cornforth
The Institute for Women’s Health