NEWS

COVID-19 Can Double the Risk of Serious Pregnancy Complications, Studies Show

Pregnant woman gets vaccine

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Key Takeaways

  • Pregnant individuals who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely to have severe pregnancy complications.
  • Young, Hispanic women were more likely to test positive for the virus.
  • The good news for those who contract the virus is that newborns have little risk of being born with the infection.

As COVID-19 rages into its third year, the medical community is still figuring out how the virus impacts different groups of people. Two recent studies help answer that question. The research provides insight into the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant people, as well as the risk of passing the virus on to a newborn baby.

“We found that pregnant patients who tested positive for COVID-19 had more than double the risk of poor outcomes than patients who did not test positive for COVID-19” explains Assiamira Ferrara, MD, PhD, associate director, Kaiser Permanente Division of Research. Dr. Ferrara is the first and leading author of the study focused on pregnancy, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. “Poor outcomes included preterm birth, venous thromboembolism (blood clot), and severe maternal morbidity,” she adds.

Assiamira Ferrara, MD, PhD

We found that pregnant patients who tested positive for the coronavirus had more than double the risk of poor outcomes.

— Assiamira Ferrara, MD, PhD

While the news is sobering for pregnant parents, the findings of another study are more optimistic regarding newborn babies. Published in The BMJ, a medical trade journal, this study found that there is little risk of an expecting mom who has COVID-19 passing the illness on to her infant.

Both studies provide greater insight into the constant-changing coronavirus and its lingering effects. The findings increase pregnant patients’ awareness of the dangers of COVID-19, provide hope that the virus won’t be passed on to their babies, and most importantly, shine a spotlight on the importance of lessening the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the first place.

What the Studies Say

The study that looks at the effect of COVID-19 on pregnancy examined data from over 43,000 expecting patients at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. The parents in the study delivered their babies between March 2020 and March 2021. Researchers followed participants through their pregnancies, examining links between perinatal complications and coronavirus infection.

“The study found twice the risk for preterm birth for those testing positive for coronavirus. These patients were more likely to have a medically indicated preterm birth than a spontaneous one; risk was elevated for both types of preterm birth and during the early, middle, and late terms of the pregnancy,” Dr. Ferrara notes.

The research team studied a large, diverse population, which was a strength of the study. The findings highlighted not only the danger that COVID-19 adds to pregnancy but what ethnicities are most susceptible to severe problems.

“We found that patients who tested positive for coronavirus infection were more likely to be younger, Hispanic, have had multiple babies, had obesity, or lived in a neighborhood with high economic deprivation,” states Dr. Ferrara. Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander parents and those with pre-gestational diabetes were most likely to be hospitalized with the virus during pregnancy.

Another study looked at what happens after a person gives birth and the impact on the baby when the parent contracted COVID-19. Researchers reviewed data from almost 500 studies conducted between 2019 and 2021. They found that less than 2% of the babies born to over 14,000 moms diagnosed with COVID-19 tested positive for having the virus.

The low risk of viral transmission is good news for parents and babies alike. Studies show a parent's placenta may help provide protection from the virus spreading to a newborn.

“Thankfully, babies and kids seem to have been protected from developing severe disease from COVID-19. It seemed to have a strong predilection to affect the elderly, and as you get younger and younger the disease seems to be much milder,” though this is not always the case, states Fady Youssef, MD, a board-certified pulmonologist, internist, and critical care specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center.

Why the Findings Matter

For the general population, COVID-19 symptoms can range from mild with a runny nose to severe with difficulty breathing and loss of smell. For someone who is pregnant, the symptoms can increase in severity.

“In addition to preterm birth and the associated neonatal issues, and potentially long-term developmental issues from prematurity, pregnant patients with COVID-19 were more likely to have a life-threatening heart or lung problem, or complication from pregnancy, such as eclampsia,” explains Lauren Carlos, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group.

Pregnant patients are typically younger in age and are expected to have less severe reactions to having COVID-19. But research shows that hormonal changes to a woman's body during pregnancy can impact her respiratory and immune systems, making her more susceptible to coronavirus infection.

Struggling with sickness from COVID-19 while trying to keep your unborn baby healthy can create a level of stress for any parent. Wondering if your sickness, your symptoms, and the physical stress on your body will affect your baby, is a lot to carry. But research showing such a small risk of infection to babies can help put parents at ease.

“It offers the mom significant peace of mind. For most moms, their first and foremost concern is, how is my baby and how well are they going to do and how is this going to affect them? And based on experience and based on the data that is evolving," states Dr. Youssef. "It seems that the babies do fine, but the most important thing is for the mom to take care of herself."

Protecting Yourself and Your Baby

Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, taking prenatal vitamins, and attending scheduled healthcare visits are critical elements of keeping the expecting parent healthy during pregnancy. A strong immune system and general good health are important components of protection against COVID-19. Medical intervention is also key. The CDC notes that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for parents who are expecting.

“The most important thing is to get vaccinated. It helps the mom, but also, as we know, the mom helps the baby with immunity for the first few months of their life. So, the mom getting vaccinated will confer some protection for the baby as well,” says Dr. Youssef.

Fady Youssef, MD

The most important thing is to get vaccinated. It...helps the baby with immunity for the first few months of their life.

— Fady Youssef, MD

A pregnant parent’s health is important because her health has an impact on two. There may be little chance of her baby becoming severely ill because of the virus, but experts say it’s critical not to take unnecessary chances.

“Avoiding the baby getting the virus isn’t the only goal. The goal should be a healthy mom and a healthy baby,” Dr. Carlos concludes.

What This Means For You

Protection from COVID-19 and safety precautions are always important for expecting parents. With twice the risk of pregnancy complications due to the virus, parents should do all they can to follow health and medical guidelines to stay strong and healthy during pregnancy. Parents can solace in the fact that even if they contract the virus, their little one has minimal risk of infection.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ferrara A, Hedderson MM, Zhu Y, et al. Perinatal complications in individuals in California with or without SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy. JAMA Intern Med. 2022;182(5):503-512. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.0330

  2. Allotey J, Chatterjee S, Kew T, et al. SARS-CoV-2 positivity in offspring and timing of mother-to-child transmission: living systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2022;376:e067696. doi:10.1136/bmj-2021-067696

  3. Ferrara A, Hedderson MM, Zhu Y, et al. Perinatal complications in individuals in California with or without SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy. JAMA Intern Med. 2022;182(5):503-512. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.0330

  4. Taglauer ES, Wachman EM, Juttukonda L, et al. Acute severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 infection in pregnancy is associated with placental angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 shedding. Am J Pathol. 2022;192(4):595-603. doi:10.1016/j.ajpath.2021.12.011

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of COVID-19.

  6. Vale AJM, Fernandes ACL, Guzen FP, et al. Susceptibility to covid-19 in pregnancy, labor, and postpartum period: immune system, vertical transmission, and breastfeeding. Front Glob Womens Health. 2021;2:602572. doi:10.3389/fgwh.2021.602572

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccines while pregnant or breastfeeding.

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at www.lakeishafleming.com.