Genital and urinary tract defects are birth defects that affect sex organs (like the penis or vagina) and the urinary tract (like the kidneys or bladder). This group of defects includes ambiguous genitals, bladder exstrophy, cloacal exstrophy, epispadias, hydronephrosis, hypospadias, kidney dysplasia, polycystic kidney disease and renal agenesis.
What causes genital and urinary tract defects?
We don’t know the exact cause of most of these conditions, but there are some things that may make you more likely than other women to have a baby with genital and urinary tract defects. These are called risk factors. Having a risk factor doesn’t mean for sure that your baby will be affected. But it may increase your baby’s chances of having a genital or urinary tract birth defect.
- Age and weight. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (also called CDC) suggests that women who are 35 or older and obese may have an increased risk of having a baby with hypospadias. Being obese means being very overweight with a body mass index (also called BMI) of 30 or higher.
- Contact with certain chemicals during pregnancy. Exposure to pesticides and industrial chemicals during pregnancy may be linked to hypospadias. Pesticides are chemicals used to kill things like bugs, rodents, mold or weeds.
- Family history of genital and urinary tract defects. Genes are parts of your body’s cells that store instructions for the way your body grows and works. Genes are passed from parents to children. Gene mutations and problems with chromosomes may cause some genital and urinary tract defects.
- Having hormone problems during pregnancy. If you have a disease or condition that causes your body to make too much male hormone, your baby may have ambiguous genitals. Ambiguous genitals are when the genitals outside the body (the penis or vagina) aren’t clearly male or female.
- Smoking or using street drugs (like cocaine) during pregnancy. More research is needed, but doing these things during pregnancy may increase your risk of having a baby with a defect.
- Taking certain medicines before and during pregnancy. Taking some medicines just before you get pregnant or during early pregnancy may increase your risk of having a baby with a genital and urinary tract defect. This includes medicines used to treat seizures or high blood pressure, or medicines with hormones, like progestins, fertility treatments and male hormones.
How can you prevent genital and urinary tract birth defects?
Before you get pregnant:
- Get a preconception checkup. This is a medical checkup you get before pregnancy to help make sure you’re healthy when you get pregnant.
- Maintain a healthy weight. To find out your BMI, go to www.cdc.gov/bmi. Eating healthy foods and being active every day can help you get to a healthy weight before pregnancy.
- Talk to a genetic counselor. If you or your partner has a family history of genital and urinary tract defects, or you have a child with a defect, you may want to talk with a genetic counselor before getting pregnant.
- Talk to your health care provider if you have a hormone condition. If you have a condition that causes hormone problems, work with your provider to manage your condition and plan for pregnancy.
While you’re pregnant:
- Avoid chemicals. More research is needed, but it’s best to avoid contact with pesticides and industrial chemicals during pregnancy.
- Go to all of your prenatal care checkups. Prenatal care is medical care you get during pregnancy. Getting regular prenatal care can help you have a healthy pregnancy. It’s important to go to every appointment even if you’re feeling fine.
- Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use street drugs. If you need help quitting, tell your provider.
- Talk to you provider about any prescription and over-the-counter medicines, supplements and herbal products you take. You may need to stop taking a medicine or switch to one that’s safer during pregnancy.
A healthy pregnancy begins before you get pregnant. Because there are steps you can take to help prevent genital and urinary tract defects, knowing your risk factors is important.
Visit marchofdimes.org for more information about how to have a healthy pregnancy and baby.