HSV and Newborns

Herpes Simplex Virus – What It Is and How It Manifests

What do chickenpox, shingles, and genital herpes have in common? They are all the result of an infection of herpes virus. Although slightly different in structure, the herpes simplex virus (HSV) is part of the family of viruses that cause both chickenpox and shingles. There are two types of herpes simplex viruses. Type 1 is most associated with the presence of cold sores around the mouth and on the lips and Type 2 is the one associated with genital sores.

HSV is a sexually transmitted disease that is highly contagious and is passed through an infected person. Although it manifests in blisters and sores, HSV can also be a silent infection that may not present any symptoms at all. This is a particularly dangerous aspect of the disease, especially when it comes to pregnancy and birth. When a person first contracts HSV, they may break out in small clusters of blisters in the genital area. These blisters are very itchy and eventually develop into sores that are painful. Fever, fatigue, aches and pains and a urethral or vaginal discharge generally accompanies the symptoms. The initial or primary attack can end after seven to ten days, but it can also drag on for anywhere from two to four weeks. Recurrent outbreaks (they can occur five or six times a year) often have reduced symptoms.

Mothers Pass It to Their Babies, Often Without Knowing

However, most herpes infections, whether primary or recurrent, have no symptoms at all. These silent attacks often go undiagnosed. Consequently about 90% of people who are infected with genital herpes don’t even know it. Whether they know or not, infected people can pass the infection on to others, including an infected mother to her unborn or newborn baby.

The statistics indicate that one in four pregnant women has been infected with HSV, even though most are unaware. Newly infected women, in 30 to 50 percent of cases, will pass the virus to their newborn. The reason the rate is high is because if a woman contracts HSV for the first time during the latter stages of her pregnancy, her body has not had time to build up antibodies and the baby is not protected from the infection. If the mother has been infected prior to having the baby, then the chance of passing the infection is reduced significantly.

How Babies Become Infected

Many women who have had herpes go on to deliver healthy babies. But a number of babies born to infected mothers are also infected. The infection is most often passed during labor and vaginal delivery, which is why it is important for a woman who knows she’s had herpes advise her medical practitioner. That way steps can be taken to protect the baby from what could be very devastating consequences.

Most babies who contract herpes get it from their mothers during the birthing process. There are rare occasions when the baby can become infected before birth, while in the womb. Sometimes the baby is infected by being kissed or touched by an infected person who has not washed their hands or taken precautions to protect the baby from being infected.

The Devastating Effects of HSV on Newborns

A newborn that is infected with HSV often develops skin, mouth or eye infections. If the infection remains localized in these areas, the baby will go on to grow normally, although there can be permanent serious damage to the baby’s nerves or eyes. If the infection spreads, as it often does, the damage is devastating. The brain and internal organs are infected and the baby is irritable, does not eat well and can have seizures. Even with treatment, a baby infected with herpes in the internal organs has only a 50% chance of survival. About 10 percent of babies whose brains have been affected by HSV also die. Those who survive are left with serious, debilitating challenges such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, seizures, and vision or hearing loss.

Vital Precautions

If a woman has a history of genital herpes and presents during labor with symptoms of the infection, the baby can be birthed via cesarean delivery. That way the baby is protected from contracting the disease during the birthing process. There is no way to protect a baby if the disease is silent at the time of delivery.

Treatment for this STD is available and a woman who knows she’s been infected should avail herself of the treatment to protect her baby.

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