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COVID-19 During Pregnancy Can Lead to Preterm Labor, Other Complications

baby boy laying in hospital incubator

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 complications during pregnancy are still being studied.
  • A meta-analysis found there's a slightly increased risk of ICU hospitalization among pregnant moms who contract COVID-19.

COVID-19 infections in pregnant women have been associated with higher rates of maternal ICU admission and a slightly increased risk of preterm labor. But COVID testing is also higher among this population, which may influence these findings to some degree.

Study Findings

Data continues to pour in, but a recent review of 77 studies highlights the way COVID-19 can affect both mothers and their unborn babies. According to the analysis, “Pregnant or recently pregnant women with COVID-19 seem to be at increased risk of requiring admission to an intensive care unit or invasive ventilation.” What’s more, COVID-infected mothers tend to have a slightly higher rate of preterm labor as well.

While this may sound alarming, it’s important to note that COVID-19 is not the only disease that can hit pregnant women harder than their non-pregnant counterparts. “Any disease can be considered more dangerous for a pregnant woman, because her health not only impacts her, but also her unborn baby,” says Michelle Sands, ND, a women’s health and fertility expert at Glow Natural Wellness.

How COVID Can Affect Pregnant Women

The recent meta-analysis found that 40% of pregnant women with COVID-19 experienced common symptoms such as fever and cough. When compared with non-pregnant women, however, pregnant women appeared less likely to have symptoms like fever and myalgia (muscle aches). Other COVID symptoms, like respiratory issues and development of pneumonia, seemed more likely to occur in women who are pregnant, according to the review.

This could, in part, help explain why an increased number of pregnant women need ICU support either during or immediately after pregnancy. These slightly higher numbers, however, could simply be the byproduct of increased COVID testing among pregnant women as well.

One thing is for certain—pregnant women with preexisting conditions like diabetes, advanced maternal age, and high body mass index will likely suffer from more severe COVID symptoms, the research notes. This is also the case in the general population, but the concern among pregnant women is for the unborn child as well as the mother.

Michelle Sands

Pregnant or recently pregnant women with COVID-19 seem to be at increased risk of requiring admission to an intensive care unit.

— Michelle Sands

“What we do know is that women (pregnant and non-pregnant) with pre-existing medical conditions are at higher risk for increased severity of COVID-19 should they become infected,” Sands says. “We also know from the study that pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to deliver preterm, and their babies are more likely to spend time in the NICU.”

Why Does COVID Lead to Preterm Birth? 

The explanation for why pregnant women who've tested positive for COVID-19—or have tested positive in the past—have an increased risk of preterm labor and birth is not yet known. “Data related to viruses and preterm birth are relatively scarce, though evidence suggests that the virus can attack and kill trophoblast cells, which can lead to inflammation," says Sands. "This inflammation event can induce a type of cytokine storm, and these events can in turn lead to preterm birth."

Does this mean that new moms and moms-to-be should panic about catching COVID? Not really, says Sands. “When talking about COVID, we must understand that the vast majority of COVID cases are asymptomatic and most people have no idea that they have had it unless they are tested. And even then, the standard PCR test has been proven to be inaccurate 50% of the time, so any numbers that we look at are speculative.”

What This Means For You

If you’re pregnant, know that you are considered as being in a higher risk group for COVID-19. That doesn’t mean you should live in fear and avoid leaving your home. Using basic health precautions should be enough to keep you safe in most cases. Mask wearing is essential any time you go into a crowded or public place, and of course, adequate hand washing is also key to protecting yourself from the virus. 

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  2. Allotey n, Stallings E, Bonet M, et al. Clinical manifestations, risk factors, and maternal and perinatal outcomes of coronavirus disease 2019 in pregnancy: living systematic review and meta-analysisBMJ 2020;370:m3320 doi:10.1136/bmj.m3320

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  5. Wadman M. Science. Why pregnant women face special risks from COVID-19. August 4, 2020. 

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