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Herpes Simplex Infection During Pregnancy

What is herpes simplex infection?

Herpes simplex is a common infection by the herpes simplex virus. It causes painful blisters that break open and form sores.

How does it occur?

You can get infected with the virus by contact with broken blisters or sores on the genitals, mouth, or rectal area of an infected person. The virus can spread to others by kissing, sharing food or drink, or during sex. You may spread it from one part of your body to another if the virus gets on your hands--for example, after touching a blister.

Once you are infected, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. Most of the time the virus is inactive, which means it is staying in certain cells in the body and not causing symptoms. However, the virus may become active and cause sores again.

Herpes is very contagious when you have sores. The virus may also spread to others even when you don’t have symptoms.

How does a herpes infection during pregnancy affect the baby?

A herpes infection for the first time during the first 3 months of pregnancy might cause a miscarriage or problems with the baby. If you get a herpes infection for the first time later in the pregnancy, it may cause premature labor and delivery. If you have an active herpes infection when your baby is born, you could pass the infection to the baby. It could cause serious problems for the baby.

Your baby is most at risk of getting sick from the virus if you have sores in the genital area during labor. If you have herpes sores in or around the vagina, the baby has a good chance of coming in contact with the virus and getting infected when your bag of water breaks or during delivery through the birth canal.

You are less likely to pass the infection on to your baby if you were first infected with the virus before pregnancy and the infection flares up again while you are pregnant.

Breast-feeding is safe as long as there are no sores on or around the breast.

If you are pregnant and have had herpes, tell your healthcare provider so steps can be taken to avoid infecting the baby.

What are the symptoms?

Some people infected with herpes have no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they usually occur within 2 weeks after the virus first enters your body. The symptoms of a herpes simplex infection in the genital area may include:

  • painful sores (blisters) on the genitals (for example, on the area around your vagina), thighs, or buttocks
  • vaginal discharge
  • pain when you urinate or have sex
  • trouble urinating
  • itching in the genital or anal area that starts suddenly
  • general discomfort, such as tiredness and muscle aches
  • fever (usually only with the first outbreak of blisters)
  • tender, swollen lymph nodes in the groin

If a newborn is infected with herpes simplex, the baby may have the following signs of infection during the first month after birth:

  • irritability
  • breathing problems
  • fever
  • convulsions or seizures
  • jaundice (yellowish skin)
  • sores on the skin
  • bruising

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Infection can be confirmed with lab tests. Cells or liquid from a sore will be tested in the lab for the virus. You may have blood tests to see if you have had a herpes infection before.

The baby can be diagnosed with blood tests, tests of cells or liquids from a sore, and cultures of samples from the nose, throat, mouth, and eyes.

How is it treated?

If you are pregnant and have had herpes, tell your healthcare provider so steps can be taken to avoid infecting the baby. Antiviral medicine, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir, is a safe medical treatment for infected pregnant women. It doesn’t cure the infection, but it can help prevent an active infection that could be passed to your child during birth. If you already have sores caused by an active infection at the time of delivery, antiviral medicine does not keep the infection from being passed to the baby. In this case, your provider may suggest a cesarean delivery (C-section) to avoid infecting the baby. If you don’t have any sores at the time of labor, you may have a vaginal birth.

Your healthcare provider may recommend or prescribe medicine to lessen pain and itching during an active outbreak. Sitting in a bathtub of warm water 2 or 3 times a day may also help soothe the pain.

If your newborn gets infected, the baby can be treated with medicine, such as acyclovir. The medicine will increase the chances that your child will recover and develop normally.

How long will the effects last?

The first outbreak of herpes is usually the worst. The sores usually start to heal after about 5 to 7 days. They generally go away in 1 to 3 weeks. Sometimes they may last for as long as 6 weeks. If you have no active or recent sores at the time of delivery, the risk for passing the virus to your baby is low.

The virus stays in your body and you may get more sores. Repeat outbreaks of sores tend to be milder than the first outbreak and the sores heal more quickly. Repeat outbreaks of herpes simplex are not as likely to infect the baby.

The infection can be serious for newborns. Babies infected with herpes simplex may die or have eye problems, intellectual disability, seizures, or other problems.

How can I take care of myself when I have an outbreak of herpes sores?

  • Follow the full treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Take medicine as prescribed by your provider. Use a disposable glove to put medicine on the sores. This helps prevent spread of the infection to other parts of your body.
  • Wipe yourself from front to back after you use the toilet.
  • Wear loose clothing, preferably cotton, to allow circulation of air. It also helps avoid pressure on the skin. (Pressure can cause more blisters.)
  • Don’t use douches, perfumed soaps, sprays, feminine hygiene deodorants, or other chemicals in the genital area.
  • Avoid a lot of sunlight and heat. They may cause more blisters.
  • Avoid sexual contact with others.

There are many herpes counseling groups that give support to people who have herpes. You can get more information by calling the National Sexually Transmitted Diseases Hotline at 1-800-227-8922.

How can I help prevent infection with herpes simplex virus?

Herpes simplex virus is sexually transmitted. To avoid getting infected with herpes, practice safe sex. You cannot always know or predict when the virus will be shed or passed to someone else. Always use latex or polyurethane condoms during any sexual contact. This includes oral-genital and anal-genital sex. Also, you are less likely to get a sexually transmitted disease if you have just one sexual partner who has no other partners. Ask your partner(s) if they have had herpes because herpes may be spread from areas not protected by a condom, such as the groin, thigh, and rectum. Avoid sexual contact if your partner has any sores.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-15
Last reviewed: 2011-05-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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