What You Should Know About the Delta Variant During Pregnancy

A pregnant person wearing a mask looks out a window

Getty Images / Guido Mieth

Key Takeaways

  • The Delta variant, a strain of COVID-19, is more contagious and causes more severe illness in everyone, including pregnant people.
  • If you are pregnant, you have a compromised immune system. If you contract the Delta variant, you may be at risk for premature birth or a C-section.
  • Medical professionals recommend pregnant women prevent contracting the Delta variant through vaccination, hand washing, masks, and other safety precautions.

Pregnant people are dealing with a variety of exhausting circumstances during their pregnancy. Yet some now are concerned about contracting the COVID 19 Delta variant while they are expecting. Like previous strains of the virus, the Delta variant can be more dangerous for pregnant people and their unborn children. Experts answer the tough questions soon-to-be parents are wondering about the ever-evolving pandemic.

Is the Delta Variant More Dangerous?

Patients who contract the Delta variant have more severe medical complications, including if they are pregnant, according to Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “Medical complications include a [200% increase] in the incidence of pneumonia, ICU admissions, and the need for intubation,” she says.

Dr. Ross also emphasized that the Delta variant is more contagious than the original variant of COVID-19. This makes it more dangerous and more easily spread for everyone, including pregnant people.

Ronald Dixon, MD

[The Delta variant] is two times as contagious as the original COVID-19 strain, and 60% more contagious than the Alpha strain

— Ronald Dixon, MD

"The increased risks are related to the infectiousness of Delta," says Ronald Dixon, MD, an internal medicine doctor and the CEO of CareHive. "It is two times as contagious as the original COVID-19 strain, and 60% more contagious than the Alpha strain (previously known as the U.K./B.1.1.7 variant), which was responsible for prior waves of the pandemic throughout the world. Delta is now the dominant strain in the U.S., responsible for over [98%] of new infections.

What Are the Risks for Pregnant People?

While pregnancy can already be an anxiety-inducing time, the Delta variant presents even more risks. Specifically, both the original COVID-19 variant and the Delta variant carry an increased risk of preterm birth. This is due to the virus’s effect on the already compromised immune system of a pregnant person, Dr. Ross says. In addition, pregnant people who have COVID-19 more likely to have a C-section than people delivering their babies who don’t have the virus, she explains.

The respiratory spread of the Delta variant, and the original strain, can cause problems for pregnant people, says Cindy M. Duke, MD, PhD, FACOG, a board-certified OB/GYN, fertility doctor & virologist, and medical & laboratory director of Nevada Fertility Institute. “It is more contagious to begin with and seems to have more severe respiratory manifestations," she says. "This is very significant considering that pregnant patients at baseline tend to take more breaths per minute when compared to non-pregnant persons."

Pregnant people can inhale more particles over the same period of time as other people. In theory, this means that pregnant people breathe in more particles during exposure to COVID-19.

Are the Symptoms Different for Pregnant People with Delta?

The Delta variant may look and feel just like the original COVID-19 symptoms. These include fever, chills, dry cough, shortness of breath, muscle/body aches, headaches, sore throat, fatigue, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and loss of taste or smell, Dr. Ross says. 

One of the main differences for pregnant people with the Delta variant is that they may experience a quick decline in their illness. “Pregnant women may get sicker more quickly, especially in the respiratory tract,” Dr. Ross says. Lisa Hansard, MD, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist at Texas Fertility Center, agrees, explaining that pregnant people are more likely than non-pregnant people to experience severe illness due to COVID-19.

Sherry Ross, MD

Pregnant women may get sicker more quickly, especially in the respiratory tract.

— Sherry Ross, MD

What Do We Now Know About the Vaccine and Pregnancy?

The COVID-19 vaccine is the best protection for an expecting parent and their baby, says Lisa Hansard, MD. The extra-contagious nature of the Delta variant, and more serious risks if a pregnant parent catches it, mean the COVID-19 vaccine is the best protection.

While there was originally uncertainty surrounding the vaccine’s safety during pregnancy, it is now widely recommended by doctors in the United States and other countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective during pregnancy. And studies have shown that vaccinated pregnant people give birth to babies who developed COVID-19 antibodies in utero. 

“This is important because a newborn’s own ability to make their own antibodies is not yet fully mature until around 6 months after birth," Dr. Duke says. "If they also continue to receive breast milk from their vaccinated mom or carrier, postnatally, they will also continue to receive a replenishment of neutralizing antibodies.”

Researchers continue to track the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for pregnant people. The studies are promising as they continue to conclude it is a strong option for preventing COVID-19.

Dr. Duke wants people to know that the vaccine isn’t going to harm your baby. “The vaccines do not cross the placenta," she says. "Spike protein does not cause miscarriage. Spike protein does not cause infertility. The changes seen in periods are temporary and what one would see in anyone mounting an immune response and in no way reflects a health change from vaccines.” 

How Does the Virus Sometimes Cause Premature Birth?

Pregnancy is already taxing on a healthy person's body’s systems, including the heart and lungs. If a patient is already struggling with their regular systems, it can be necessary to induce labor or to perform a C-section to alleviate the inflammatory stressors on the pregnant person’s body, Dr. Duke says.

“Infection or blood clots that stroke out the placenta can also lead to the need to deliver the pregnant COVID-19 patient," she explains. "[This is] in order to rescue the fetus who may then be receiving decreased or no blood flow across the placenta.” It’s not that the baby necessarily decides to come early if you’ve had COVID-19, but rather that doctors often have to help improve your health by delivering the baby.

Premature birth, Dr. Duke says, can mean more complications for the baby, such as breathing problems as a result of poor lung development, brain and neurological compromise, blindness, the need for repeat surgeries, and other concerns. “While still in the womb, Delta infection poses a risk of sepsis for mom," she says. "[There is also risk of] blood clots that can cause a stroke of the placenta that can lead to fetal distress or even stillbirth."

How Can Pregnant People Avoid Delta?

While all of the experts above recommend the vaccine as the main means of preventing pregnant people from contracting the Delta variant, there are additional ways to protect yourself:

  • Restart social distancing by staying six feet apart
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol
  • Do not touch your face
  • Wear your mask and encourage those around you to as well
  • Avoid crowded areas
  • Avoid plane travel
  • Contact your physician if you have cold-like symptoms

What This Means For You

The Delta variant is more easily transmitted from person to person, and it can result in more severe illness, especially for pregnant people who are already immunocompromised. If you are pregnant, you can take extra precautions to avoid contracting this variant and should reach out to your doctor if you are experiencing cold-like symptoms for next steps.

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