Study Suggests Fever During Pregnancy Leads to Birth Defects
If you've ever wondered just how dangerous having a fever during pregnancy is to either you or your baby, the short answer is that doctors don't always know the full extent of what kind of damage it can do. Doctors know that it a fever can raise the internal body temperature of a woman, but they haven't always been sure exactly what that raise in temperature would do to her or her baby.
Previous research has shown us that a fever during pregnancy–specifically the first trimester–is associated with certain disorders, such as a cleft palate or cleft lip. But what doctors were still unsure about it is if it was the fever itself or whatever was causing the fever that was causing the issues. And now a new study has helped to clear up some of the confusion by proving that it's actually the fever itself that causes the damage.
The study, published in the journal Science, found that when a woman has a fever in the first trimester–regardless of its cause–the high temperatures can cause a disturbance as the baby's heart and jaw developing during weeks three through eight of pregnancy. Essentially, the study found that higher-than-normal temperatures in the body activated certain tissues that were associated with birth defects. For some reason, a fever acted as a sort of “on” switch for those birth defects to develop.
What's particularly interesting is that this study found that the women didn't actually need need an infection to cause the birth defects–instead of the infection causing the damage, it was the high temperatures from the fever itself that caused the defective tissue to form. So you could have a fever from a viral infection, for example, and not need any medication to treat the actual infection–but you'd still want to treat the fever so that you could help bring your temperature down before any damage is done. This is especially important in the first trimester, as crucial development is happening for the baby.
One of the study's authors told CNN that one of the primary reasons that they needed the study was to try to encourage women to treat a fever when they are sick during their pregnancies. It appears that the “trend” for pregnant women is to try to avoid taking any sort of medication when they are pregnant out of fear of hurting their unborn babies, so this study helped to demonstrate how important it is to treat a fever with the proper medication.
“We need to increase public awareness regarding fevers and birth defects. Women are often hesitant to take medication during pregnancy,” the author, Dr. Eric Benner, neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University, told the news outlet. But in treating the fever, no matter what it's caused by, the hope is that women can help keep their temperature down to the range needed to switch those defective tissues back to the “off” position.
I'm not saying you need to take all the medications you possibly can at the slightest indication of a fever just because you are pregnant, of course, but I am saying that keep in mind that certain medications do have a purpose during pregnancy–from antibiotics to antidepressants to antipyretics (just a technical world for medications that bring down a fever)–and they can be taken safely with the right supervision from your pregnancy care provider.
So what exactly did the study suggest you do if you are pregnant and have a fever? Obviously, you should first check your temperature and speak to your healthcare provider. And next, according to Dr. Benner? Don't be afraid to pop a pill if you need to.
Dr. Benner suggested that women stick with plain old acetaminophen as the safest, most studied choice that help reduce a fever. And if you can reduce your baby's risk of having a heart defect with a Tylenol, that's definitely something to consider.
What do you do if you have a fever during pregnancy?