Catching chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus or VZV) as an adult can be a very unpleasant thought.
But the contagious, itchy red rash (which shows up as spots, and then blisters) is easily-recognised, usually pretty mild and tends to last around a week in children.
If you’re pregnant, though, it can be even scarier – causing the worry that it might affect your unborn baby.
One MFM writer even tells how she bumped into a neighbour’s child who had chickenpox while she was 4 months pregnant – and couldn’t get away fast enough.
But did she really need to be so panicked? Here’s everything you need to know…
Should I worry if I come into contact with chickenpox?
The good news is that if you had chickenpox as a child, which 9 in 10 of us have, then you are most likely to be immune to it.
“If you know that you have had chickenpox, there is nothing to worry about,” says family GP, Dr Lowri Kew.
Mum Faith, from our forum, agrees: “During my 1st pregnancy I was around a baby who had chickenpox, but my midwife told me that if I had had it as a child, it would be fine as the baby gets immunity from you.”
Whereas mum Joanne says she came into regular contact with chickenpox when she was pregnant, and because she’d had it already, she wasn’t affected.
“I work in a nursery and all through my pregnancy I was in close contact with children infected with chickenpox. I had had it as a child and was immune, so all was fine and I now have a healthy 2-year-old.”
What if I haven’t had it – could chickenpox harm my unborn baby?
If you didn’t have chickenpox as a child and you get it when you’re pregnant, there is a tiny chance that you can pass the illness onto your unborn baby.
The NHS estimates that chickenpox complicates 3 in every 1,000 pregnancies (that’s 0.3%).
“If you catch chickenpox when pregnant there is a small chance that it can affect your unborn baby,” explains Dr Kew.
If your unborn baby did contract the virus, it could potentially result in poor growth, eye and nervous system problems, and possibly premature labour.
Chickenpox is also pretty unpleasant if you catch it as an adult, as it can potentially cause other health complications, such as pneumonia.
So it’s not so great for the mum-to-be, either.
But I don’t know if I had chicken pox as a child…
If you remember being smothered in calamine lotion and sitting on your hands while your mum screamed ‘don’t scratch’, you probably had chickenpox as a child.
Many of us will know for sure – or at least remember staying up late scratch the spots at night ?
However, if you’re unsure, ask your parents or older relatives. If they can’t confirm it, to be on the safe side, speak to your midwife or GP as soon as possible.
How can I protect myself from chickenpox?
If you didn’t have chickenpox, or you can’t quite say for sure, you’ll be given a blood test, called a ‘torch screen test’ to check whether you have the antibodies to protect against the chickenpox virus.
Don’t panic though – as it’s likely you will have the protective antibodies even if you didn’t have the virus as a little one.
MFMer Mrs SP found herself in that very situation: “My mum was sure that I’d never had it so I was really worried, but when they tested me I was immune. Chances are you will be too.”
And mum-of-2 Tigerlily decided to find out if she was immune before she was pregnant:
“I had never had chickenpox, although my 2 sisters had. Even before I was pregnant, I had a simple blood test to check my immunity and I was fine. If you’ve been exposed to chickenpox in the past, the chances are you’ll be fine.”
What if I am not immune to the chickenpox virus?
If you turn out to be one of the very few who are not immune, please try not to worry. You may be given a jab of immune globulin to strengthen your immune system and protect both you and your unborn baby temporarily.
You’ll also be monitored closely by your GP or midwife.
However, if you’re not immune, try to remember that it is still risky to be in ‘close contact’ with someone who does have chickenpox – so try to avoid these close contact situations with anyone currently infected by the virus.
Here’s the official advice bit: guidelines issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaeocologists (RCOG) say that pregnant women who have not had chickenpox should be advised to avoid people who have the virus and be referred to a specialist if they develop the rash.
The RCOG also says that pregnant women should be asked by about previous chickenpox, or shingles infections at their booking-in appointment. And if you think you’ve got it, your midwife should be contacted immediately.
What if I only had a mild case of chickenpox as a child?
Most school-aged and preschool children have mild cases of chickenpox, and if that sounds like you – you’ll still have immunity. However, if you’re unsure, speak to your GP or midwife.
It’s worth knowing that even if you have had chickenpox, coming into contact with the virus again means that there’s a chance you can develop a condition called shingles, which can be uncomfortable but is usually mild and there’s no risk to you or your baby.
Have your say
Have you been affected by chickenpox during pregnancy? Got any tips for worried mums-to-be?
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