Is it safe to be around people with chickenpox while pregnant?

Chickenpox in pregnancy is very rare – in the UK, only 3 in every 1000 (0.3%) of women will catch chickenpox while they are pregnant, and in most cases will lead to a full recovery with no health issues. However, it is still important that you seek urgent medical attention if you suspect that you have been exposed to chickenpox as it could potentially cause serious complications for yourself or your unborn baby.

If you’re already immune to chickenpox – if you’ve had chickenpox before, or have gotten the chickenpox vaccine, then there’s no need to worry about coming into contact with chickenpox while you’re pregnant. If you are already immune to chickenpox, you will also pass on that immunity to your unborn child, so they are not at risk of developing chickenpox in the womb. It’s rare to get chickenpox after you have had it before, but if you develop a rash after coming into contact with someone with chickenpox, speak with your GP or midwife.

If you’re not immune to chickenpox – if you are exposed to chickenpox and have never had chicken or are unsure, you would need to see your GP as soon as possible. Depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy, chickenpox can potentially cause serious health issues for yourself and your unborn baby and you might need an injection of varicella zoster immune globulin (VZIG) to help prevent this. If you do come into contact with someone with chickenpox and you are not immune then you should get in contact with your GP as soon as possible, even if you aren’t displaying any symptoms.

If you’re unsure if you’ve had chickenpox before – if you can’t remember for sure whether or not you had chickenpox as a child, get in contact with your GP. Your GP should have records, and if no records are available they may be able to arrange a blood test to check if you are immune to the chickenpox virus.

What happens if I get chickenpox while pregnant?

In most cases, if you get chickenpox while you are pregnant then you will experience the typical symptoms of chickenpox without any further complications for yourself or your unborn baby. However in some rare cases, chickenpox can cause issues, which is why if you’re pregnant and think you have chicken pox you should seek medical attention (your GP or call NHS 111) immediately.

Unusual symptoms of chickenpox include:

  • breathing difficulties
  • unusual vaginal bleeding
  • a severe and/or bleeding rash
  • headache
  • feeling drowsy
  • feeling or being sick

Complications of chickenpox for pregnant mothers include:

  • pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs)
  • encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
  • meningitis (inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord)

Mothers are at greater risk of these complications after 20 weeks, if they smoke cigarettes, have lung disease, or are taking steroids.

Complications of chickenpox for unborn babies include:

Foetal varicella syndrome (FVS) – sometimes known as congenital varicella syndrome, FVS is a rare disorder than causes a number of birth defects or abnormalities. This can occur when a mother catches chickenpox within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. The abnormalities caused by FVS differs in each case, but can result in abnormalities of the skin, brain, eyes, the arms, legs, hands, feet, bladder, and/or bowel of your unborn child.  These abnormalities can include severe skin scarring, underdeveloped limbs, inflammation of the eyes, and/or an underdeveloped brain. FVS is very rare, and occurs in less than 1% of babies born after their mother catches chickenpox during the early stages of her pregnancy.

Chickenpox infection at birth – if a mother catches chickenpox during a later stage of pregnancy, after 36 weeks, then it is possible that the baby could be infected and may be born with chickenpox. This is called neonatal varicella, and is fatal in 30% of cases.

Shingles later in life – chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes shingles. If a mother catches chickenpox between weeks 28 and 36 of her pregnancy then it is possible that the unborn baby could be infected with the virus but have no symptoms. This increases the risk that the virus will reactivate later in life and cause shingles. You can find out more information on shingles here

How do I treat chickenpox while I’m pregnant?

If you’re not immune – if you’re not immune and you’re exposed to chickenpox, an injection of VZIG (varicella zoster immune globulin) may be recommended if you are within 10 days of the contact and don’t have any blisters yet. This is a human blood product that helps the immune system and can make the infection shorter and less severe. However, if you already have blisters from chickenpox, this won’t work.

Keep yourself hydrated – chickenpox can cause you to develop a fever, which can cause you to lose fluids through sweating and heavier breathing. Making sure that you are drinking enough fluids, preferably water, will prevent you from becoming dehydrated.

Over the counter medications can help to relieve symptoms – painkillers like paracetamol can be used if you are in pain or have a fever. It is best to avoid ibuprofen because of a small chance of causing more severe skin reactions if taken while you have chickenpox.

Antiviral medications – if you get chickenpox while more than 20 weeks pregnant, a GP may prescribe you an antiviral medication called aciclovir. Aciclovir cannot cure the symptoms of chickenpox, but it can help to reduce the severity of symptoms and reduces the risk of developing complications as a result of the infection.

Calamine can alleviate symptoms – calamine can have a cooling and soothing effect on skin, which can help to reduce itchiness caused by chickenpox. You can get calamine lotion from most pharmacies, which should be applied directly onto the spots to provide relief, and can help to dry up the spots faster.

Oatmeal and bicarb baths – like calamine, oatmeal and bicarbonate of soda can help to reduce skin irritation. The best kind of oatmeal to use in an oatmeal bath colloidal oatmeal, which is finely ground and dissolves easily in hot water, though blending normal porridge oats in a food processor will work just as well if you can’t get your hands on any. Instead of oatmeal, putting some bicarbonate of soda into warm bathwater can also have a soothing effect on irritated skin.

If you are experiencing any of the more unusual or severe symptoms or are getting worse, seek medical attention immediately.

It’s not recommended, but there are no specific safety concerns – most women in the UK will already be immune to chickenpox and there’s very little evidence about the risks or benefits of giving this vaccine in pregnancy, so as a caution, it’s not recommended. However, in cases where the vaccine was given by mistake to pregnant women, it has not been linked to any specific problems in their babies.