Congenital herpes simplex virus occurs when a mother who is infected with the herpes simplex virus gives birth and passes the virus on to the infant. Congenital means to be born with something such as a virus, illness, or birth defect. The infant may contract the virus in one of three ways. The most common way is called birth-acquired herpes (still considered congenital) and occurs by the baby coming into contact with the infected region when passing through the birthing canal during delivery. A second way, though uncommon, is when an infant becomes infected while still in the uterus. The third way of an infant contracting congenital herpes is by coming into contact with a person who has herpes (such as an infected mother with oral herpes kissing her baby) shortly after birth.
The virus can also present itself in three different ways: SEM, DIS, or CNS. SEM refers to skin, eyes, and mouth. This version presents itself in external lesions, but does not affect the internal organs. DIS, or disseminated herpes, does affect the internal organs such as the liver. CNS herpes occurs when the virus spreads to the central nervous system (CNS) and the brain. Symptoms of CNS herpes include irritability, seizures, tremors (uncontrollable shaking), and lethargy or tiredness. A swelling in the skull is also common. Treatments using antiviral medications have improved, resulting in a lower rate of death among infants with congenital herpes simplex virus. Prevention, including recommending C-sections to pregnant women affected with herpes, is the most common intervention. If you are pregnant with herpes or your baby has congenital herpes, you should talk to your doctor about the most current and effective antiviral medications.