Pre-school and school-age children often suffer from a mild condition called fifth disease. Many people refer to the illness as 'slapped cheeks disease' because of the red facial rash that kids generally get when they are ill. Pregnant women can also catch the disease, but the side effects of fifth disease are sometimes dangerous to an unborn child. Learn more about fifth disease, and find out what you need to do to protect your child during pregnancy.
About the disease
Fifth disease is a viral infection, caused by the parovirus B19. You can catch the virus through coughs, sneezes or bodily fluids like saliva and blood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 percent of pregnant women are immune to the virus, so a lot of expectant moms won't need to worry about the disease.
For many people, the virus causes relatively mild and harmless symptoms. The virus temporarily stops production of vital red blood cells, but this doesn't normally cause problems in healthy adults because the body fights off the infection before the blood cell levels drop to a dangerous level. Unborn babies are at higher risk because their bodies aren't always strong enough to cope with this problem.
Signs and symptoms
A lot of people don't experience any symptoms, but everyone is contagious until the immune system kills the virus. Mild symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and sore throat. Unsurprisingly, many pregnant women initially attribute these symptoms to a common cold, but other signs can indicate a fifth disease infection.
Pregnant women with fifth disease will often experience soreness in their joints. This discomfort can last for several weeks. A red rash may also appear on the cheeks, legs, belly or neck. Unlike children, pregnant women rarely experience a 'slapped face' rash.
A doctor will diagnose the condition by taking a blood test. It's important to see your doctor as soon as you see any of these symptoms, as he or she can then make sure your baby is doing well.
Potential risks and complications for your baby
Complications from fifth disease are rare, and only around 5 percent of pregnant women with fifth disease experience problems. The main risk to your unborn child is anemia, which can occur if the red blood cells drop too low. Red blood cells are particularly important for your baby because they carry oxygen around the infant's body. Babies with anemia will generally recover without medical help, but a small percentage may suffer from a condition called hydrops.
Hydrops occurs when too much fluid builds up in the baby's body. If this occurs, the infant may experience more serious complications like heart failure. A serious case of hydrops could even kill your child.
If a doctor thinks your child is at risk from anemia or hydrops, he or she may carry out a procedure called percutaneous umbilical blood sampling. During this procedure, a specialist will insert a needle into your uterus during an ultrasound. He or she will then draw blood from the umbilical cord to test for anemia.
If there are no signs of anemia, the doctor may simply suggest that he or she continues to monitor the problem without further intervention. The doctor will probably tell you to have regular ultrasound scans at a clinic like EVDI Medical Imaging, but, unless a scan shows something abnormal, your baby is unlikely to suffer any complications.
If the doctor detects anemia, he or she may decide that a fetal blood transfusion is necessary. In this case, the unborn baby will receive blood via a vein in the umbilical cord. The procedure is relatively quick, and you can normally have a transfusion as an outpatient. You may experience some slight soreness or discomfort, and you may need antibiotics to prevent an infection. A doctor may also prescribe drugs to temporarily prevent contractions.
There's no vaccine against fifth disease, so pregnant moms should take extra precautions to avoid infection. Make sure you regularly wash your hands with soap and water, particularly before handling food. Remind everyone to cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing, and make sure everyone disposes of used tissues straight away. If you know that somebody has the virus, you should stay away from them until they confirm the infection has gone.
Fifth disease is a common childhood infection that doesn't normally cause any serious complications. Unfortunately, fifth disease can cause problems for pregnant women, so make sure you see your doctor if you spot any potential symptoms.