OCT 11, 2017 3:30 PM PDT

Fevers in Early Pregnancy Linked to Birth Defects

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Many women in their early pregnancies are hesitant to take medications for fear that they may endanger their baby. However, it may be prudent to treat fevers in early pregnancy, as researchers have now officially linked fevers to birth defects.  

"We have known since the early 1980s that fevers are associated with birth defects, but how that was happening has been a complete mystery," said Dr. Eric Benner, a neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University, and the study’s senior author. Specifically, doctors didn’t know whether the high temperatures (fever) or the underlying infection was responsible for the birth defects.

The answer to this question came about serendipitously, as Benner and his team were studying ways to change the activities of cells with temperature. But they soon realized that a specific type of cells, called neural crest cells, were extremely sensitive to temperatures.

"We found that these neural crest cells contain temperature-sensitive ion channels that typically are found in your sensory neurons," Dr. Benner said. "They're the channels that, when you stick your hand in a hot cup of water, tell your body the temperature has changed."

Neural crest cells are also vital in the development of facial features, such as the jaw and face, as well as the heart. The team hypothesized that fevers interfere with two temperature-sensitive ion channels in the neural crest cells (TRPV1 and TRPV4), which results in the birth defects. Indeed, experiments in zebrafish and chicken embryos confirm their suspicions. Furthermore, they showed that fevers occurring during head and face development corresponded to facial deformities, such as cleft lip or palate. Likewise, fevers occurring during heart development corresponded to heart defects.

"We need to increase public awareness regarding fevers and birth defects. Women are often hesitant to take medication during pregnancy," said Dr. Benner. "While doctors advise most women to avoid any drug during pregnancy, there may be benefits to taking acetaminophen to reduce fever. Women should discuss all risks and benefits with their doctors."

"My hope is that right now, as women are planning to become pregnant and their doctors advise them to start taking prenatal vitamins and folic acid, their doctor also informs them if they get a fever, they should not hesitate to call and consider taking a fever reducer, specifically acetaminophen (Tylenol), which has been studied extensively and determined to be safe during the first trimester,” he said. "These findings suggest we can reduce the risk of birth defects that otherwise could lead to serious health complications requiring surgery.”

"I hope moving forward, we can educate more women about fever as a risk factor for birth defects and let them know they shouldn't just tough it out if they develop a fever," Dr. Benner said. "They should ask their doctor before getting pregnant whether they may benefit from taking a fever-reducer such as acetaminophen in the event they develop a fever."

Additional sources: Duke University

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
NOV 12, 2019
Immunology
NOV 12, 2019
Allergy Shots May Work for Kids with Pollen Food Allergy Syndrome
It’s not common for young children to develop pollen food allergy syndrome (PFAS), but for those that do, there’s not too much parents can do o...
JAN 14, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
JAN 14, 2020
Can I eat this donut? A quick test for celiac disease.
Genetic testing revealed that our ancestors have been eating wheat, rye, spelt and barley for over 8,000 years. Today, gluten, a protein found within these...
JAN 04, 2020
Immunology
JAN 04, 2020
Why Do Skincare Products Sometimes Cause Rashes?
Chemicals commonly found in skincare products are intended to avoid interactions with the part of the immune system responsible for triggering allergic inf...
JAN 30, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
JAN 30, 2020
How To Choose The Right DNA Testing Kit For You
One of the most exciting scientific advancements in the past decade, at least in terms of its impact on pop culture, was the sudden accessibility of home D...
FEB 10, 2020
Microbiology
FEB 10, 2020
As Ebola Outbreak Continues, Researchers Create Faster Genetic Test
Since 2013, around 30,000 people have been infected during several outbreaks of Ebola in eight different countries....
FEB 15, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
FEB 15, 2020
FDA nod for AI-powered technology to detect strokes
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided clearance for a novel technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to detect strokes. The platf...
Loading Comments...