How to Handle the Flu During Pregnancy
Getting the flu is never fun—but it’s especially rough when you’re expecting. Unfortunately, it’s harder for your immune system to fight off infections during pregnancy, which means you’re at greater risk of coming down with a more severe case of the flu, just when you want to avoid it the most. It also means you’ll have to fight harder to recover from this potentially dangerous disease. Here’s what you need to know about getting the flu while pregnant and how to safely treat it.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses—so contagious, in fact, it can be transmitted through droplets in the air when infected people cough, sneeze or talk from as far as six feet away, says infectious disease specialist Richard R. Watkins, MD, FACP, FIDSA, an associate professor at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. “Someone might also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose,” he adds. The flu can lead to symptoms ranging from mild to severe, and in some cases can be life-threatening.
The odds of contracting the flu during pregnancy are the same as when you’re not expecting, but the level of severity changes, says Michael Cackovic, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Because your immune system is naturally weaker during pregnancy, you’re at a higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu, like pneumonia or bronchitis. “The flu is actually four to five times more dangerous in pregnancy,” Cackovic says. “Each year, we’ve had a least one pregnant woman die of the flu.”
Having the flu while pregnant can also potentially affect baby. There’s a higher incidence of birth defects, like neural tube defects and heart anomalies, in babies whose moms had the flu in the first trimester compared with those who didn’t, Cackovic says, likely due to fever that so often accompanies the flu. Pregnant women who get the flu are also more likely to experience preterm labor.
The classic flu symptoms are the same, whether you’re expecting or not. If you think you’re coming down with the flu, let your doctor know as soon as possible, since early treatment can help stave off the worst of the flu symptoms and get you on the road to recovery faster. Here are the biggies to look out for:
- A cough
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor right away or head to the emergency room:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or pressure
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe vomiting
- High fever that isn’t responding to Tylenol
- Decreased fetal movement
Getting the flu test
If you suspect you have the flu, your doctor will probably perform what’s known as a rapid flu test in their office, which generally involves doing a nose or throat swab. It takes about 15 minutes to get the results—but it’s not 100 percent accurate. “The rapid flu test is positive in about 50 to 70 percent of people with the flu,” Watkins says. Given that it’s not totally accurate, doctors will often make a diagnosis based on your symptoms alone.
How long does the flu last?
The length of time you’re stuck suffering from the flu varies from person to person, but an uncomplicated course of the flu usually lasts anywhere from three to seven days, Watkins says, though a cough and general feeling of being sick can last two weeks or more. “Pregnant women may have symptoms for longer,” he says. In some cases, pregnant women can develop pneumonia as a complication of the flu, which extends the length of the illness.
There isn’t much doctors can do to treat the flu itself; because it’s a viral illness, it can’t be combated with antibiotics. But here’s the good news: If you see your doctor within the first 48 hours of developing symptoms, she may prescribe Tamiflu, a pregnancy-safe antiviral medication that can shorten the length of the flu by a day and potentially help lower your risk of developing complications, Watkins says.
Since a flu-related fever in early pregnancy can be dangerous for baby, it’s important to get a spiking temperature under control. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is considered safe for treating a fever during pregnancy.
Home remedies for flu
Since there isn’t much you can take to treat the flu while pregnant, home remedies can help make you more comfortable and get you feeling better faster.
• Stay well hydrated. It’s easy to become dehydrated during pregnancy to begin with, and even easier when you’re sick with the flu. Make sure to drink plenty of liquids.
• Rest. Being sick takes a lot out of you. Resting allows your body to focus on fighting off the illness, Watkins says.
• Cook some chicken soup. Chicken soup is good for more than just the soul—it’s also a great home remedy for flu. A bowl of the steaming broth can help loosen chest congestion, says Julie Lamppa, CNM, APRN, a nurse midwife at the Mayo Clinic, and studies suggest that chicken soup may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect, helping to ease respiratory infections.
• Drink lemon and honey tea. Want another easy remedy for breaking up chest congestion? Lamppa suggests adding lemon and honey to a cup of hot water.
• Gargle with salt water. It may not be the tastiest of home remedies for flu, but if you’re struggling with a sore throat, Lamppa says mixing up a gargle of warm water and salt can help ease the pain.
• Use saline nasal sprays. Nasal congestion can also set in with the flu. Luckily, Lamppa says over-the-counter saline sprays and drops are a pregnancy-safe way to help unstuff your nose.
• Run a humidifier. The air in your home can be especially dry in the winter. To ease your chest congestion, plug in a cool mist humidifier to add some moisture to the room.
There’s only so much you can do to prevent the flu when it’s going around, but washing your hands thoroughly and frequently—especially after you go out in public—and doing your best to avoid interacting with sick people is key, Watkins says. Above all, your best bet for avoiding the flu while pregnant is to get the flu shot.
Getting the flu shot while pregnant
Doctors and government health agencies strongly encourage women to get the flu shot during pregnancy. Since the shot is designed to protect against the influenza viruses that research suggests will be the most common that season, its effectiveness varies from year to year. But according to the CDC, studies have shown that when the vaccine is well matched to the season’s circulating viruses, it reduces the risk of getting the flu during pregnancy by 40 to 60 percent. Even if you do wind up getting the flu, if you’ve had the shot, you’re less likely to develop serious complications associated with the illness, Watkin says.
Getting the flu shot while pregnant also offers big benefits for baby. Infants under 6 months are too young to get the flu vaccine, but research shows that if you get the shot during pregnancy, the antibodies your body produces passes to baby and helps protect her from flu infection for several months after birth.
Worried about the flu vaccine making you sick? Don’t be. “It’s impossible to get the flu from the flu shot because there’s no live flu virus in the vaccine,” Cackovic says. (The nasal spray vaccine, which contains the live virus, shouldn’t be given to moms-to-be.) Other than mild pain or tenderness where the vaccine was injected, Watkin says there aren’t any notable side effects to getting the flu shot while pregnant. You can get the shot at any point during pregnancy.
Updated February 2018
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