It is not uncommon to run a fever during pregnancy, but high fevers during the early stages of pregnancy are known to present a particular risk for birth defects.
The birth defects that it can place the baby at risk for vary, but luckily, there are also treatments available that are safe for both the mother and child. Here is an explanation of some of the ways that high fevers can increase the risk of birth defects, as well as some of the treatments that are available.
When to be Concerned
High fevers during the first trimester of pregnancy represent the greatest danger to the child in terms of birth defects. High fevers during the first trimester have been linked to congenital heart defects as well as certain physical deformities, such as a cleft lip or cleft palate.
Previously, researchers had wondered if the problem for the fetus was the fever itself or the infection it caused, but a new study, published in the Science Signaling Journal, states that it is the fevers themselves that can cause issues with the baby’s growing heart and jaw, leading to heart defects and facial deformities, respectively.
How Fevers Cause Birth Defects
The problem with high fevers in early pregnancy is that the heightened body temperatures disrupt the function of what is known as neural crest cells, which help govern the development of the fetus’ face, heart and jaw. However, the study from Science Signaling did not find that the particular virus causing fevers had an effect on the fetal development, with the high temperatures themselves being the problem.
Pregnancy-Safe Treatments for a High Fever
Even if high fevers do occur during the first trimester of pregnancy—which is the riskiest period in this case—there are treatments available that can reduce fevers while still being safe for the fetus. John Balmes, a professor of environmental science who is unaffiliated with the study, was asked about such treatments and stated that mild fever-lowering drugs such as Tylenol could help prevent certain birth defects and present no risk to the growing fetus.
Many pregnant women and healthcare professionals alike are of the opinion that drugs should never be administered to pregnant women, which has made awareness of treatments for early-pregnancy fevers scarce. Chunlei Liu, one of the authors of the Science Signaling study, says, “We know of some drugs that are safe to be administered during pregnancy,” adding, “It’s always good to talk to physicians and seek advice.” Liu’s advice is important, as many drugs can indeed cause complications during pregnancy at any stage. However, pregnancy-safe drugs administered to help lower fevers have the potential to save the child from being born with serious conditions such as congenital heart defects.
When it comes to high fevers in early pregnancy, the key is for pregnant mothers to be aware of the risks and the treatments available. This way, the expectant mother can offer her informed consent in favor or against treatments with full knowledge of both how the treatment could help their child as well as what potential side effects include. At the very least, for first trimester pregnancies, it appears that high fevers can cause a variety of birth defects regardless of the infecting virus, so in these cases, administering pregnancy-safe drugs may often be a wise course of action.