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    Neonatal Herpes: When a Baby Catches the Infection

    Published 12 November 2019
    Fact Checked
    Irina Ilyich
    Reviewed by Irina Ilyich, Flo lead medical advisor, Lithuania
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    Neonatal herpes usually affects newborn babies from birth to four weeks old. This rare disease occurs as a result of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) activity. HSV is a highly contagious virus that can be transmitted from a mother to a newborn baby before, during, or after delivery.

    How can a baby catch neonatal herpes?

    Newborn babies have fragile immune systems that aren’t fully developed. Because of this, infants are more prone to various types of infections, and HSV may easily infect a baby. 

    The good news is that neonatal herpes is a rare diagnosis and only one in 3,200 babies gets it. Even though the disease is uncommon in newborns, you might want to understand how the infection spreads in order to prevent it.

    Neonatal herpes may occur during three different phases:

    1. Before delivery — Medical experts believe that five percent of infants catch HSV infection in the womb. The virus gets through the placenta, or infection spreads via the cervix. A doctor will prescribe therapy for infection and perform all the necessary exams to make sure that her body stops shedding HSV.

    2. At delivery — The third trimester represents the phase when the probability of passing HSV from a mother to a child significantly increases. About 80 percent of newborns catch neonatal herpes at birth.

    The first episode of genital herpes might be the most infectious. Blisters and cold sores are usually the most contagious when they burst. These skin lesions remain infectious until they disappear. However, many women may shed the virus even though they don’t exhibit any symptoms.

    The first episode of genital herpes might be the most infectious. Blisters and cold sores are usually the most contagious when they burst.

    If you already have a history of genital herpes and are in the midst of a dormant phase, chances for your child to catch the virus are only 3 percent. What protects the baby are the antibodies present in your blood.

    In the event of an active infection in the third trimester combined with a history of HSV, the probability of neonatal herpes rises to about 20 percent.

    3. After delivery — In the period from birth to the fourth week, a newborn’s chances of contracting a virus are still rather high. The percentage of all infected newborns with neonatal herpes catching the virus after birth is about 10 percent. Because of their vulnerable immune system, preterm babies can also catch HSV easily.

    To help your baby, you may want to pay attention to their mood and behavior. If you have some doubts, consult your pediatrician.

    Neonatal herpes symptoms

    When it comes to neonatal herpes, it’s important to notice any symptoms as early as you can. The disease usually develops fast and can have serious consequences on a newborn’s health. The neonatal herpes symptoms might be as follows:

    • A baby may look irritated without any special reason.
    • Your baby may seem lethargic while reacting slowly.
    • Your baby refuses to eat. Before jumping to conclusions, try some of the tips and tricks to help them eat.
    • They might get a fever

    Your response time can be important. Let your pediatrician know the symptoms as early as possible to prevent further worsening infection.

    If you’ve noticed that your baby seems listless, unresponsive, and has breathing difficulties, head to emergency room immediately. 

    Treating neonatal herpes

    If you have an active infection, your doctor will take precautionary measures to help you give birth to a healthy infant. Most likely, you’ll get acyclovir, an antiviral medicine that has demonstrated the best results in suppressing HSV. Having a cesarean section may be recommended over vaginal delivery.

    To be on the safe side, consult your pediatrician about feeding your baby if you’ve developed cold sores around your breasts.

    Mothers and babies with HSV are treated with the same antiviral drug. While mothers use oral therapy, babies get intravenous treatment. Depending on the type of infection, your baby may get a topical therapy if the disease affects their eyes.

    You may continue breastfeeding your baby during therapy. To be on the safe side, consult your pediatrician about feeding your baby if you’ve developed cold sores around your breasts.

    Preventing neonatal herpes

    Medical experts claim that almost 80 percent of babies with neonatal herpes are born from mothers with unrecognized oral and genital HSV infection. The inability to spot neonatal herpes symptoms in a timely manner might be a problem. To protect yourself and your baby, you may want to take some of the following steps:

    • Let your doctor know if you have a history of genital herpes.
    • Get yourself familiar with the symptoms of HSV and neonatal herpes.
    • Refrain from kissing your baby if you have cold sores or ulcers.
    • Wash your hands before feeding your baby.
    • Stop breastfeeding your baby if you notice the symptoms of HSV around your breasts.
    • Consult your pediatrician for an alternative way of feeding your baby if necessary.

    The majority of women with active HSV infection during the six weeks before birth undergo a cesarean section. Medical experts consider this procedure the safest way to prevent spreading the infection.

    Summing up

    In many cases, neonatal herpes doesn’t show any symptoms. Neither infected babies nor their mothers show neonatal herpes symptoms during the first stage of the disease. The best tactic might be to get yourself familiar with the disease and do necessary exams if you notice something unusual. You may want to combine your knowledge and intuition to take proper action so you can feel confident that you are doing your best to take care of your child.

    History of updates

    Current version (12 November 2019)

    Reviewed by Irina Ilyich, Flo lead medical advisor, Lithuania

    Published (12 November 2019)

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