During pregnancy your immune system is depressed, so you're more likely to pick up non-pregnancy related bugs and germs. There's no need to call the doctor for every cold and snuffle, although you do need to take care that any medications you take are safe for use in pregnancy (you can check with your midwife, doctor or the pharmacist). There are times, however, when it is important that you do call your doctor and seek prompt medical attention, such as the following.
Bad chest infections
As we've said, coughs and colds are just as common during pregnancy as when not pregnant and are usually no cause for concern. Bouts of coughing may be uncomfortable but be assured that your baby is well protected in the womb and won't be affected by your racking cough. However, if you are running a fever then you will need to take medications to bring your temperature down as studies have shown a link between fever in the first trimester and the development of certain birth defects.
Paracetemol should lower the fever, but it's always worth calling your doctor. If have a severe infection or your symptoms aren't clearing up after a couple of weeks then do talk to your doctor. If the doctor finds that you have a bacterial infection then you will probably need a course of antibiotics to clear it up. Do make sure that the doctor treating you knows that you are pregnant, but don't worry about your prescription, there are numerous kinds of antibiotics that are safe for use in pregnancy.
Exposure to childhood illnesses
The risks to your baby associated with exposure to childhood illnesses like chicken pox and measles during pregnancy depend on whether you have immunity and at what stage of the pregnancy you were exposed to the illnesses.
If you have been exposed to someone with chicken pox or measles (Rubella) and you know that you have no immunity, or you're not sure whether you have immunity then contact your doctor right away.
- Chicken pox - Your doctor will be able to offer you a test to check for chicken pox antibodies. If you're not immune then there's a high risk that you will have been infected and your doctor will probably give you an injection to lessen the severity of the illness in the hope that this will reduce the likelihood of any fetal damage. The risk of damage to the fetus is highest at the end of pregnancy, from week 36 to birth, there is also an elevated risk between weeks 13 and 20, at other times in pregnancy the risk is relatively low.
- German Measles - Contracting german measles (rubella) when pregnant has a far stronger correlation with fetal damage and birth defects, particularly during the first 3 months of pregnancy when your baby is very likely to be damaged by a rubella infection. For this reason you will most likely have been tested for immunity in the first stages of pregnancy and a quick call to the surgery should tell you whether you have immunity or not. A programme of routine inoculation of teenage schoolgirls against rubella means that most women in the UK of childbearing age have a good likelihood of immunity, you shouldn't, however, take this for granted and if you're not sure then you should check with your doctor.
If you are immune then you won't get rubella and your baby won't come to any harm. If you do catch German Measles in the first trimester of your pregnancy then you will probably receive counselling about a possible termination of the pregnancy as the risk of multiple birth defects is very high in the first ten weeks. You may also be offered special screening to detect possible birth defects. In the third month of your pregnancy the rate of risk falls to one in ten, so is still high, but after week 16 your baby is unlikely to come to any serious harm.
- Fifth disease (slapped cheek) - You have a reasonable chance of having immunity from fifth disease through childhood exposure, but call your doctor anyway to arrange a testif you have been exposed to the illness and you're not sure of your immunity status.
Listeriosis is a strain of food poisoning that can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth if not treated. Babies of mothers who develop listeriosis can also suffer from breathing problems, meningitis as well as several less serious consequences after birth. Pregnant women are as much as 20 times more susceptible to the illness as other people and so should take special care to avoid exposure to the listeriosis bacteria that may be found in undercooked meats, chilled deli products, fresh pates, raw and undercooked fish and shellfish, soft cheeses such as brie and camembert and unpasteurised milk.
Symptoms of listeriosis include vomiting, diahrhoea, high temperature, hot and cold flashes and muscle aches and can develop up to a month after exposure to the listeriosis source. If you experience any of these symptoms and think you may have been exposed to the bacteria then contact your doctor as soon as possible. See here for more information about how to avoid infection.
Toxoplasmosis is an infection most often picked up from raw or undercooked meat, but it is also found in the faeces of infected cats. Toxoplasmosis infection in a pregnant woman is rare, but it is potentially damaging to the fetus and is more dangerous the earlier in the pregnancy it is contracted. It may lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, organ damage (particularly to the eyes) and hydrocephalus. Symptoms in adults are usually mild, flu-like symptoms that can develop several weeks after exposure, so you may not realise if you have been infected. If you think you may have been exposed to the parasite then speak to your doctor about testing for the infection. If you own a cat then it makes sense to be tested for immunity before you fall pregnant, as if you're immune then you can cross it off your list of concerns.
To avoid toxoplasmosis infection in pregnancy avoid raw or undercooked meats and be particularly careful with hygiene when handling these foods, avoid changing cat litter, be scrupulous about washing raw vegetables and fruits and wear gardening gloves for gardening or wash your hands with great care afterwards.
Urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections, UTIs are very common among women of childbearing age and you are more likely to suffer from one when pregnant. It's important that you seek treatment from your doctor for a UTI as if the infection travels up to your kidney it can make you quite ill and may provoke early labour. Treatment is a simple course of antibiotics safe for use in pregnancy: do make sure that the doctor you see knows that you are pregnant to be sure you are prescribed a safe antibiotic.
Symptoms of UTIs include: a burning sensation when urinating, frequent urination or an inability to urinate, blood or pus in urine or particularly dark and pungent urine, lower abdominal pain and pelvic pain, high temperature and pain during sex.
Although you are more susceptible to UTIs in pregnancy you can help ward them off with careful hygiene, drinking lots of water, urinating soon after sex and drinking cranberry juice regularly. It may seem like a good idea to boost your feminine hygiene with special products like vaginal sprays, powders and washes, but you should really avoid all of these as they can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in the vagina and do far more harm than good.