Maternal and Fetal Infections
This article has been fact checked by a Board Certified Pediatrician. Sources of information for the article are listed at the bottom.
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An important risk factor for cerebral palsy is an infection. This can be an infection in the mother or in the developing fetus or newborn baby. Infections of different types can lead to the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy, but not all who are exposed to these infections will end up with the condition. An infection simply increases the chances of developing cerebral palsy. Studies have proven that infections increase the risk both in premature infants and those that are come to term before being born.
Mothers should take care to avoid infections and to visit their doctors regularly while pregnant, but doctors are also responsible for screening pregnant women for infections, educating them about the risks and treating infections in a timely manner. Not being careful about infections can lead to serious and lifelong consequences for the baby, long after the infection is gone.
How Infections Can Cause Brain Damage
Some specific types of infections, including cytomegalovirus, chickenpox, and rubella, have been linked to an increased risk of cerebral palsy, but any infection that causes a fever could increase the risk. When a pregnant woman has an infection or a fever her body produces proteins called cytokines. These circulate throughout the body and throughout the developing fetus. In the baby’s brain cytokines cause inflammation and too much inflammation in the brain can lead to brain damage, and ultimately to cerebral palsy. Inflammation around delivery may also play a role in how the baby’s brain responds.
Harmful Infections during Pregnancy
Many different infections have been directly linked to a risk of cerebral palsy in a child when the mother is affected during pregnancy. Any kind of infection, though, may have an impact, may cause a damaging fever, and may increase the risk of a child being born with the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy. Some of the most likely infections to occur during pregnancy, and those that have bene proven to be connected to cerebral palsy include:
- Cytomegalovirus. Also known as CMV, this is a viral infection that belongs to the herpes group. CMV can also cause cold sores. This infection is dangerous for the fetus beyond the risk of cerebral palsy, as it can cause blindness, epilepsy, hearing loss, and other issues. CMV is especially dangerous if the mother has never had the infection previously. Being around young children increases the odds of contracting this infection.
- Chickenpox. Most prospective mothers will have already had the chickenpox as a child, and these women are immune to the virus. The infection is characterized by itchy, red spots on the skin and it can be very harmful to both the mother and her unborn baby.
- Rubella. Rubella is a virus that is also known as German measles. It is not very common these days thanks to the prevalence of the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine. However, it is still possible to contract the infection and it can cause serious harm to the baby. It not only increases the risk of cerebral palsy but may also increase the risk of the mother having a miscarriage.
- Toxoplasmosis. This is the infection that is most often associated with cat feces. Pregnant women are told to avoid litter boxes because of the possibility of contracting toxoplasmosis. For most people it is not a serious infection and many people get it without ever experiencing symptoms and are then immune to it. The infection can cause serious complications for a developing fetus, though, so it is important to avoid infection.
- Herpes simplex virus. This is the most common sexually transmitted infections and one of the most common infections affecting pregnant women. It can be transmitted from the mother to the baby and cause many possible complications and disabilities, including cerebral palsy. If the infection is managed with medication or c-section at delivery, the chances of passing it on to the baby are considerably reduced.
- Sexually transmitted infections. HIV, chlamydia, and other sexually transmitted infections are not as common as some of these other infections in pregnant women, but some of them are on the rise. It is important to be screened and treated for these because they don’t always cause symptoms, but they can impact the baby.
Cerebral palsy has been linked to a number of infections in the mother, but there is also an infection that occurs in the fetal membranes and amniotic fluid that can also increase the risk of developing cerebral palsy. This is called chorioamnionitis and it is more common in babies born preterm. The infection is harmful because it can worsen and cause more serious infections or even blood infections. It can also cause a fever in the mother that poses a risk to the fetus.
The best way to manage infections as a risk factor for cerebral palsy is to prevent them. Quick treatment of an infection can eliminate the risk, but infections are not always noticed or diagnosed before damage has been done. A huge part of prevention is basic hygiene, like washing your hands regularly, but especially after handling food, animals, dirt, or after being around children or anyone who is sick. Pregnant women are also encouraged to avoid unpasteurized milk products, cat litter, rodents, either pets or wild, and any other wild animals.
Another crucial part of prevention is to get regular medical care. Go to all of your scheduled appointments with your doctor and discuss what infections you may be at risk for and what you can do to prevent them. If you have any symptoms of any type of infection—fever, flu-like symptoms, coughing, rashes—talk to your doctor immediately. If you do get an infection, you will need to be treated.
If an Infection Caused Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy
It is not always possible to know what caused cerebral palsy in an individual child. But, knowing that infection is an important risk factor, it may be clear that an infection could have played a role. If you were sick during pregnancy and your doctor did not catch it and did not treat you, this could have contributed to your child’s condition. If you believe negligence played a role, that you should have been treated better by your medical team, you may have a case for a malpractice lawsuit.