Pregnancy is normal in all women of childbearing age, and indeed in all-female living organisms. It is a healthy state which so many women look forward to at some point in their lives. But then, pregnancy can increase a woman’s susceptibility to certain infections. Pregnancy also increases the severity of underlying or pre-existing infections. Mild infections can progress to more serious illnesses in pregnant women.
Some infections contracted by pregnant women primarily puts the woman at risk. Sometimes the unborn baby in the womb may contract these infections. The infections pass through the placenta and reach the baby in the uterus. This puts the baby’s health at risk.
Infections that occur during pregnancy may result in miscarriage, birth defects, or preterm labor. They could also be fatal to the mother. Even the medication used for treatment may cause further complications, like side effects, especially for the fetus. So, it is of utmost importance that you prevent infections during pregnancy to reduce your risk and that of your unborn child.
In this article, we will discuss infections in pregnancy and how you can boost your immune system during pregnancy.
Why are pregnant women more susceptible to infections?
When you are pregnant, every system in your body will have a feel of it. Your hormonal levels will change. Your immune system function will also change. These changes will increase your vulnerability to infections as well as complications. Susceptibility to infections is highest during labor and delivery.
Changes in the immune system
Your immune system protects your body against foreign pathogens (harmful invaders). The immune system fights against foreign bacteria, cancer cells, as well as transplanted organs. Many players work with each other to identify foreign intruders and eliminate them.
The immune system changes during pregnancy. These changes are necessary and help to protect yourself and your baby from ailments and diseases. During pregnancy, some parts of your immune system will be suppressed while other parts will be enhanced. This in turn creates a balance that protects the baby against infections and also doesn't compromise your health as the mom.
These changes also boost your baby’s defense system. Theoretically, your immune system should see your baby as a “foreign object” and fight against it, but it doesn’t. but just like an organ transplant, it recognizes your baby as “part self” and “part foreign.” This prevents it from attacking the baby.
However, despite all these mechanisms, you have a higher risk of contracting infections that ordinarily do not cause illness. When you are pregnant, your immune system will work harder because, at this time, it is supporting two beings, and not one. This increases your susceptibility to some infections.
Changes in the body system
Apart from changes in immunity, changes to your hormonal levels can also increase your risk of infection. Hormonal fluctuations usually affect the urinary tract. Your urinary tract consists of:
- Kidneys – urine-producing organs
- Ureters – long tubes that convey urine from your kidneys to your bladder
- Bladder – urine is stored here
- Urethra – transports urine out of the body.
You know that your uterus expands when you are pregnant. The expansion puts a lot of pressure on the ureters. Also, progesterone production increases and causes the relaxation of the bladder muscles and the ureter. This may cause the urine to stay for a longer time in the bladder. This also increases your risk of having a urinary tract infection. Hormonal changes increase your risk to the susceptibility of candidiasis infection. High levels of estrogen in your reproductive tract increase your susceptibility to yeast infections.
Also, the volume of fluid in your lung changes and this can put you at risk of pneumonia, and other lung infections. The excess fluid in your lungs provides a conducive environment for bacterial growth and also reduces your body’s ability to fight infections.
Risks of pregnancy infections for mother
Infections that occur during pregnancy increases the mother’s risk of some health conditions. These include postpartum infection, vaginitis, and urinary tract infections.
Risks of pregnancy infections for the baby
Some infections can affect the unborn baby. Infections in this category include parvovirus, toxoplasmosis, and cytomegalovirus. These can trigger grave consequences.
Presently, there are no treatments for a cytomegalovirus infection (present at birth). Toxoplasmosis can be treated with some antibiotics. No antibiotics have yet been formulated for parvovirus, but it can be treated with blood transfusions.
Risks for both baby and mom
Certain infections can affect both the baby and the mother. Infections in this category include:
- Group B streptococcus (GBS)
Antibiotics can treat listeria and syphilis in the baby and the mother if the disorder is diagnosed on time. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B.
HIV during pregnancy is fatal. However, modern multidrug therapy is effective and prolongs the life of patients. It also improves their quality of life. These drug therapies along with cesarean delivery reduce the rate of transmission of the infection from the mom to the unborn baby.
Group B streptococcus
Doctors usually test women for Group B streptococcus at the end of pregnancy. GBS is caused by a bacterium called group B streptococcus. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that at least 1 in 4 women are infected with GBS. The baby gets the infection during vaginal delivery as the group B streptococcus bacterium may be present in the women’s rectum or vagina. GBS infection can cause stillbirth or internal inflammation. Newborns who are infected with the bacteria develop life-threatening infections such as pneumonia, sepsis, and meningitis. Failure to treat can cause birth defects like vision or hearing loss, chronic mental impairments, and learning disabilities.
How can you boost your immune system during pregnancy?
If your doctor says that it is safe for you to exercise, then by all means do so. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily. Medical researchers believe that daily exercise boosts the immune system in different ways. First of all, a temporary increase in body temperature can prevent the growth of bacteria. Also, white blood cells and antibodies are released quickly into the general circulation (bloodstream) when you engage in physical activity. This promotes early detection of illness. Also, exercise relieves stress, which decreases the risk of illness.
Proper hydration allows your body to function optimally. You can support immune function by hydrating properly during pregnancy, and you hydrate by drinking water. Aim for 8 glasses of water daily. This will keep you hydrated and well.
Studies are ongoing about how sleep impacts our immune system. However, researchers have found out that lack of sleep can impair the functioning of our immune system, and also increase our risk of developing sicknesses. It is important that you go to bed at the same time every night, and also wake at the same time every morning. This will regulate your sleep pattern. We know that sleep pattern changes during pregnancy – it causes you to wake several times, toss around in bed, and turn over, all in a bid to get comfortable. You can use body pillows to make yourself more comfortable while in bed. You can also use the bathroom before going to bed.
Taking vitamin C supplements during pregnancy is safe. However, you are better off taking it daily from natural sources like bell peppers, strawberries, and orange juice. You should also remember that you’re taking some from your daily prenatal vitamin.
A clove of garlic can fight the bacterial infection. It contains 12mg potassium, 5mg calcium, and at least 100 sulfuric compounds. You should add at least a clove daily to your meals to give your body a fighting chance against the flu and cold (and don't forget to take the breath mints thereafter).
It is also important that you wash your hands regularly and avoid contact with sick people. Your illness during pregnancy may not affect your baby but it may cause complications such as preterm labor. If you are sick, or you have flu or cold symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Take probiotics regularly
Regular intake of probiotics is important. Natural probiotics are found in foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. You can also purchase probiotic supplements in supermarkets or over the counter in medicine stores.
Eat well and healthily
Ensure you eat a nutritious diet every day. A pregnant woman craves a lot of weird delicacies, so it’s okay to indulge occasionally. However, always remember that you are eating for two, and your unborn baby needs a lot of healthy, and nutritious food. Ensure that you eat enough carbs, protein, vitamins, and fats. These foods boost your immunity during pregnancy.
Preventing infections during pregnancy
It is possible to prevent infections in pregnancy. A few precautions taken daily can minimize possible harm to you and your child. The following tips can help you to prevent infections during pregnancy:
- Wash your hands regularly with water and soap. This is very important especially after playing with children, preparing vegetables or meat, or after using the bathroom.
- Do not eat undercooked meats, like deli meats or hotdogs. Cook all meats properly before eating.
- Do not eat raw, or unpasteurized dairy products.
- Do not share food, cups, or eating utensils with other people.
- Practice safe and do regular testing for STIs.
- Stay away from pets or wild rodents.