What is herpes?

Herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes virus – HSV1, which usually causes sores on and around the mouth, and HSV2, which usually causes sores in or around the vaginal opening; this is called genital herpes. These are both very common viral infections and either type can infect a baby. If you have herpes, your health care provider will want to know the history of your infection early in your pregnancy.

How can a baby get herpes?

The most common mode of transmission to a baby is from the birth canal of an infected mother. However, the baby could also be infected if a person with an active cold sore kissed the baby. If a baby contracts herpes in the first month of life, the infection can be quite serious. It can cause eye infections, throat infections, nerve damage, and death.

I have genital herpes – how can I prevent my baby from getting the virus?

Firstly, make sure you tell your health care provider that you have genital herpes. Antiviral medication may be offered in late pregnancy to prevent or reduce recurrence. As labour approaches, inspect your genital area for any signs of a breakout and your health care provider will do the same. If you have an active outbreak, delivering by C-section instead of vaginally significantly reduces the high risk of transmitting the virus to your baby. Depending on the situation, you and/or your baby may be treated with anti-viral medications. If you have a vaginal delivery, some measures can prevent transmission, such as leaving membranes intact and avoiding instrument use and fetal scalp monitoring. After delivery, check the baby often for signs of infection, such as blisters, fever, or lack of appetite.

If your partner has HSV and you don’t, use condoms every time you have sexual contact, even if your partner has no symptoms. Don’t have sexual contact if your partner has an active outbreak and consider abstaining in the third trimester even if your partner doesn’t have an active outbreak. It is recommended that you be tested early in pregnancy for HSV, and then again at 32-34 weeks gestation.

The greatest risk of infection to your baby happens if you acquire a new genital herpes infection late in pregnancy. In this case, delivering by C-section is the safest option.

How can I prevent my baby from getting oral herpes?

If you are pregnant and either you or your partner has active oral herpes, avoid oral sex during an outbreak as this can transmit the virus to your genital area. Once the baby is born, anyone who has an active cold sore should not kiss the baby.