Shingles Exposure During Pregnancy: Birth Defects, Effects and Complications

Shingles is a disease of the nervous system. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chicken pox.

Painful rash and blisters are the defining symptoms of shingles. Flu-like symptoms may also be present especially before the rash appears. Early symptoms are easy to ignore because they are usually mild and present much like a flu or cold.

It is understandable for pregnant women to be concerned about their baby’s health. In this article, we will look into details about the effects and possible complications of shingles exposure during pregnancy.

What is shingles and what causes it?

As mentioned earlier, shingles is a disease of the nervous system. To those familiar with the signs of shingles, this may sound like a wrong definition.

The reason as to why shingles is termed as a disease of the nervous system is because the herpes zoster virus that causes it hides in nerve fibers. When a person recovers from chicken pox, often during childhood years, the varicella-zoster virus remains in nerve fibers but in a dormant state. It is kept in the dormant state by the immune system. After years or decades, the virus can become active again once the immune system is not as strong as it used to be. This is why most shingles cases are reported in older people.

Reactivated varicella-zoster virus moves from nerve fibers towards the skin. This causes tingling, burning, itching or stinging. These symptoms soon develop into pain which is sometimes described as excruciating.

A few days after the first symptoms, a rash appears which may present as a strip or band on a localized body area. This is best illustrated on pictures of shingles rash under breast. Most cases are reported on the chest, lower back and face. Shingles rash is defined by red spots which soon develop into vesicles. The vesicles may then break open, ooze and crust over. This whole process takes about 2 weeks. Complete recovery may not occur until 5 weeks have elapsed.

Can you get shingles more than once? You can get shingles a couple of times. In fact, the disease can become recurrent. This is mostly seen in people with serious issues with their immune systems. A condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia occurs when shingles pain persists after all other symptoms have disappeared. Medical attention is often necessary although the pain sometimes improves on its own.

Effects of shingles exposure during pregnancy

What happens when a pregnant woman is in close contact with a shingles patient? What are the effects of shingles exposure during pregnancy?

First of all, shingles is not contagious. Even skin to skin contact will not transmit the infection to a healthy person. Regardless, the shingles virus can be passed around. Touching open blisters or the fluid that oozes from the blisters can for example transmit infection. The virus will however have to reach air passages or conjunctivitis in eyes. Breathing in virus particles can also transmit herpes zoster virus.

If you have never had chicken pox, exposure to the shingles virus will cause the disease. If on the other hand you have been exposed to chicken pox virus or vaccine in the past, exposure to shingles virus during pregnancy will not have any major implication.

It is common for flu-like symptoms to occur before the shingles rash appears. These are caused by sudden increase in viral proteins in the body. They have nothing to do with you being pregnant. In fact, the symptoms may persist for much of the period that symptoms of shingles may linger.

Does shingles during pregnancy affect baby?

About half of all shingles cases occur in people above the age of 50 years. This means that women in child-bearing years are less likely to develop shingles. If it occurs, will shingles during pregnancy affect baby?

A mother’s immune system will keep the baby safe. This means that shingles during pregnancy is of no harm to the unborn baby.

Here, the assumption being made is that the mother has been exposed to either chicken pox virus or vaccine. If not, exposure to either shingles or chicken pox patient can cause chicken pox which is dangerous to an unborn baby.

Some people do not recall ever being diagnosed with chicken pox or having been vaccinated against the same. In this case, a doctor can help. A blood test can help confirm if there are herpes antibodies in the system. If not, a shot containing chicken pox antibodies may be given. This will prevent severe symptoms of chicken pox should exposure to varicella-zoster virus occur.

Shingles and pregnancy complications

Are there any potential shingles and pregnancy complications? Do pregnant women need be concerned about cases such as shingles linked to pregnancy and birth defects?

Serious complications related to shingles exposure in pregnancy are most likely in women who have never been exposed to varicella-zoster virus. In this case, medical attention is very necessary. Both the mother and unborn baby are not safe.

For mothers who have been diagnosed with chicken pox in the past or who have been vaccinated, both they and the unborn baby are safe.

Regardless, complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis are possible. This is especially in mothers with very much weakened immune systems. A doctor should be consulted so that a shingles outbreak during pregnancy will be addressed before delivery.

A shingles outbreak that occurs about a week before delivery or a few days after can lead to complications on the new born baby. The antibodies that keep a mother safe from chicken pox are passed to newborns through the placenta. For the first 6 months, these antibodies will keep the newborn protected too. Mothers who lack these antibodies give birth to newborns who are predisposed to varicella-virus.

If an outbreak occurs shortly before or after delivery, the newborn should be separated from the mother until the blisters have scabbed over. This is best done in the hospital where medications to keep the outbreak under control will be given. Otherwise, newborns can develop systematic illness, pneumonia or severe skin lesions.

Shingles and pregnancy birth defects are fairly rare. If present, they are due to placental dissemination of infection. Possible complications before delivery include limb deformities, mental retardation, spontaneous abortion and fetal demise.

As you can see, medical attention is still of importance in spite of the fact that shingles exposure during pregnancy is not considered dangerous.

How to handle shingles exposure during pregnancy

The first thing any pregnant mother should do is ensure that they have chicken pox antibodies in their systems. The antibodies are introduced in vaccines or occur naturally after a chicken pox attack. If not sure, see your doctor for a couple of tests.

Shingles symptoms during pregnancy are treated with antiviral medications. Acyclovir and valtrex for shingles are good examples. These medications do not cure shingles but do reduce the intensity, duration and severity of shingles symptoms. Oral drugs are given in most cases. For women with seriously compromised immunity, hospitalization will be required so that medications can be given intravenously.

Newborns should be kept from coming into contact with shingles blisters that have not scabbed over. Scabbing over can go on for 2 weeks. But since newborns need to be close to their mothers, covering the blisters and taking medications can help. Check with your doctor for more information.

Can you use calamine lotion for shingles? Calamine lotion is a commonly used treatment option for shingles. It works by reducing itching and may also soothe irritated skin or improve skin dryness. Calamine is also available in patches. Other than shingles, it also treats other skin conditions especially ones that have something to do with skin irritation or dryness.

At home, symptoms and signs of shingles can be improved with home treatments and remedies. Shingles pain relief apple cider vinegar treatment is a good example. Pain can also be relieved by cool compressing on the affected areas. Other than home remedies for shingles, ointments that contain capsaicin are particularly helpful in treating nerve pain caused by shingles. Capsaicin is the substance that makes a red pepper hot. A shingles nerve pain relief remedy can therefore be prepared with red pepper.

Pregnant women or mothers with newborns are advised to avoid close contact with shingles and chicken pox patients. When possible, blisters should be covered so that herpes zoster virus doesn’t get passed around. But as hinted earlier, such strict measures can be avoided by taking medications prescribed by a doctor.

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