What Is TORCH Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 05, 2023
6 min read

TORCH syndrome may sound like a single illness, but actually it stands for a group of infectious diseases that can cause problems -- some serious -- for your unborn baby:


Other agents (including HIV, syphilis, varicella, and fifth disease)



Herpes simplex

If you get one of the TORCH infections while you’re pregnant, and it spreads through your blood to your baby, they can get it, too. And because they're still developing in your uterus, their immune system most likely won’t be able to fight it off.

If the disease stays in their body, their organs might not develop correctly. How sick your baby can get depends on several things, including what the condition is and how far along they are in their development. But a number of problems can happen -- from jaundice (yellowish skin or eyes) and hearing problems to miscarriage and stillbirth.

Toxoplasmosis is rare and it’s caused by a parasite. The parasite usually gets into your body through your mouth, so you can get the disease from eating foods such as undercooked meat. If you’re infected, you can pass the infection on to your unborn baby.

Problems your baby can have if they're exposed to toxoplasmosis include:

To lower your chances of getting toxoplasmosis:

  • Don’t eat undercooked meat or raw eggs.
  • Keep away from cat litter and cat poop.
  • Avoid insects, such as flies, that have been around cat poop.

Among the other agents included in TORCH syndrome are HIV, fifth disease, syphilis, and varicella zoster virus.

HIV. Almost all U.S. children under age 13 who have HIV got it from their mothers during pregnancy. If you are HIV-positive, tests might not show that your baby has it at birth, but it can show up later, even after they are 6 months old. They might have symptoms like delayed growth, pneumonia, or swollen lymph nodes and abdomen.

If you have HIV and are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, anti-retroviral medications can help lower your chances of passing the virus on to your baby.

Syphilis. Pregnant women in the first or second stage of this sexually transmitted disease (STD) pass it to their babies 75% of the time if it’s not treated.

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and can create serious problems during a baby’s development. Many babies who get it before birth won’t survive full term, or will die shortly after they’re born. Almost half of babies will be stillborn.

Babies born with syphilis can have misshapen bones, anemia, meningitis, skin rashes, and nerve problems that can cause blindness and deafness. If you’re pregnant, you should be tested for syphilis. If you test positive, your doctor can treat it with antibiotics.

Fifth disease. This disease is caused by parvovirus B19. It’s seldom a problem for pregnant women or their babies. About half of women are immune to the virus, so their babies won’t get fifth disease. Those babies that do can get anemia. Less than 5% of the time, women have problems that cause them to miscarry.

Since there’s no vaccine or medication to prevent fifth disease, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water often, and avoid being around sick people. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about the risks.

Varicella. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, and it also causes congenital varicella syndrome in babies. It’s unlikely you would pass varicella on to your baby. Even if you have chickenpox while you’re pregnant, there’s still only a 2% chance you’ll pass it on.

However, babies born with congenital varicella can have birth defects. If you’ve never had chickenpox and never been vaccinated, you should get vaccinated at least a month before you plan to get pregnant. And tell your doctor if you think you’ve been exposed to chickenpox while pregnant.

Rubella, which also is known as German measles, is a contagious disease caused by a virus. If you get rubella, you’ll likely have a low-grade fever, sore throat, and a rash. If you’re pregnant and get rubella in your first trimester, it’s likely that you’ll pass it on to your baby.

It can be very serious -- you could have a miscarriage, or your baby could have severe birth defects.

The first 3 months of your pregnancy is when rubella can cause the most problems in your baby’s development. That’s why it’s important to tell your doctor right away if you think you might have gotten it.

Because of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, the disease is rare in children. There are only about 30 to 60 known cases of it each year in the United States, and fewer than five babies a year are born with it.

There’s no cure for congenital rubella syndrome, so prevention is key. If you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and you haven’t already had the MMR vaccine, you should get it at least 28 days before you conceive.

Also known as CMV, cytomegalovirus is an infection in the herpes virus group. And it’s estimated that 50% of adults have it by the time they’re 30. There is no cure for CMV, but it gets better on its own very quickly and doesn’t cause serious problems -- unless you’re pregnant.

If you’re pregnant, you can pass it to your unborn child. In fact, CMV is the most common viral infection passed on to babies in the U.S. -- about 1 in 150 births.

About 1 in 5 babies born with congenital CMV will get sick or have long-term issues from it, including:

Like CMV, herpes is a lifelong infection, but it can be inactive for periods of time. It’s also very common – more than 50% of people in the U.S. have it by the time they reach their 20s.

There are two kinds of herpes: HSV-1, which can cause blisters around the mouth, but can also be passed to the genitals. HSV-2 is an STD that causes genital herpes, and can cause blisters or open sores on the genitals or anus. It can also cause oral herpes.

You can pass herpes to your baby in several ways:

  • They can get the virus while they're in the uterus. This is rare.
  • You could have a genital outbreak during delivery. This is the most common way babies are infected.
  • They can also get herpes while they are a newborn.

The greatest risk to your baby is if you get your first outbreak of herpes while you’re pregnant. That’s because during your first outbreak, you shed more particles of the virus and for a longer period of time. Your body has fewer antibodies to fight the virus than it will during future outbreaks.

If you’re pregnant and get herpes later in your pregnancy, the chances of passing it on to your baby could be higher. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. If you have an active outbreak when it’s time to deliver your baby, it may be best for you to have a C-section, and you may need to take other precautions.