Why You Should Get the Flu Shot While Pregnant
With the abundance of misinformation surrounding the flu shot, it’s no surprise many moms-to-be debate getting the vaccine while pregnant. And no matter what your concern—the safety of ingredients, possible side effects, risks to baby—you can almost always find someone to agree with you. But can you get a flu shot while pregnant? And should you? Here’s the straight talk from experts about getting the flu shot during pregnancy—including whether it’s safe, what the risks and benefits are and how it can affect baby in utero.
In this article:
Is it safe to get the flu shot while pregnant?
Benefits of getting the flu shot while pregnant
Are there risks to getting the flu shot while pregnant?
When to get the flu shot during pregnancy
When not to get the flu shot during pregnancy
What to do if you’re unable to get the flu shot
During pregnancy, there’s plenty to worry about. Between counting kicks, choosing the safest car seat and making a birth plan, sometimes it’s easy to feel like you can’t handle one more decision. Then flu season rolls around and you wonder: Should pregnant women get the flu shot?
But when it comes to getting the flu shot during pregnancy, you can breathe easy: Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) whole-heartedly recommend it for prenatal care and assert that it’s completely safe. In fact, according to a 2013 study, the flu shot was found to reduce the risk of flu infections during pregnancy by up to 50 percent. Another 2018 study found it also decreased hospitalizations due to the flu by an average of 40 percent.
All medical experts agree that getting the flu shot is significantly safer than getting the flu during pregnancy, which can adversely affect both Mom and baby. According to Sherry Ross, MD, an ob-gyn and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, “If a pregnant person gets the influenza flu vaccine, they’ll be protected against the dangerous flu virus and all its potential negative health complications.”
As Ross notes, getting the flu vaccine while pregnant is critically important because the flu can have serious consequences for a pregnant person and their developing baby. During pregnancy, the flu is more likely to cause serious illness in pregnancy, compared to those women who aren’t pregnant. Changes in the immune system, heart and lungs make pregnant women more prone to severe illness from the flu, which can lead to complications, hospitalization or even death.
And as beneficial as the flu shot is for pregnant people, it’s even more beneficial for baby. Below, we’ve listed some of the ways baby will benefit from the flu shot, before and after they’re born:
- Reduces risk of birth defects related to severe flu infection: The flu often results in a maternal fever, which is more likely to lead to neural tube defects and other adverse fetal outcomes, says Kara Manglani, CNM, a certified nurse-midwife with the NYU Langone Medical Center.
- Reduces risk of flu-related preterm birth and stillbirth: Maternal flu can put baby at increased risk of preterm birth, or even stillbirth, Manglani says—and research backs this up. A 2023 study found that flu during pregnancy did increase the risk of preterm labor, while a 2021 study found that it increased the risk of stillbirth.
- Protects baby from the flu after birth. Because of their immature immune systems, babies aren’t able to get the flu shot until they’re at least 6 months old, ACOG notes. But if you’ve received the flu shot at any time during your pregnancy, baby will have antibodies against the flu for several months after birth.
So, with all those benefits, why is the decision to get the flu shot during pregnancy so difficult? According to Ross, the biggest reason why pregnant women hesitate to get the flu shot is because they’ve likely heard false information regarding the dangers of the vaccine. Almost all healthcare providers agree it’s completely safe to get the flu shot while pregnant and that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks.
Wondering about the risks of getting the flu shot while pregnant? Generally speaking, you shouldn’t expect many adverse side effects from receiving the flu vaccine. The CDC and Ross indicate that flu shot side effects can include redness and soreness at the injection site, mild fever, body aches, nausea, headache and fatigue within 48 hours of getting the vaccine. An allergic reaction can occur, but this is very rare, Ross emphasizes. And despite some of the misinformation out there, large-scale studies conducted by trusted medical facilities have repeatedly found the flu shot causes no adverse effects for baby.
Can the flu shot cause miscarriage?
You may have heard some rumors about the flu shot possibly causing miscarriage. While a small study published in the journal Vaccine in 2017 sought to find a link between miscarriage and the flu shot, the results indicated no true connection.
Further, Alex Polotsky, MD, fellowship director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Colorado Denver, indicates, “this study is nothing but statistical noise. It’s a classic case of if you look hard enough, you can find anything, especially when you slice and dice data in enough different ways. In addition, the study is flawed because they lump women between the ages of 30 to 40 together, but the two ends of this age group have very different rates of miscarriage simply by nature of their ages.”
Can the flu shot cause autism?
The controversial study indicating that vaccinations can cause autism was performed back in 1998, and despite the fact that it’s been retracted and disproven countless times, many parents still find themselves concerned about the possibility. “Even though there’s no scientific research to support this association, misinformation and antiquated myths continue about vaccines being a potential cause of autism spectrum disorder,” Ross says.
The 1998 study pointed the finger at thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative sometimes used in vaccines. However, according to the CDC, since 2003 the org has conducted nine studies that found no link between the use of thimerosal in vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.
Plus, it’s possible to receive thimerosal-free flu vaccines during pregnancy. In fact, Ross says it’s preferable, even though flu vaccines with small amounts of thimerosal are also perfectly safe. To get a thimerosal-free flu vaccine, just ask for the preservative-free, single-dose vials. They’re available almost anywhere that offers seasonal flu shots.
What’s the best time to get the flu shot when you’re pregnant? The CDC and ACOG agree it’s safe to get the flu shot at any point during pregnancy. At the latest, you’ll want to get it approximately two weeks before birth, since that’s how long it takes for baby to fully receive the antibodies, the CDC notes.
Of course, if it’s at all possible, the best time to get vaccinated against the flu is before your pregnancy even begins. So, if you know you’ll be trying for baby during flu season, add a flu shot to your to-do list.
Wondering where to get the flu shot? They’re easily accessible. Most pharmacies offer them—even the ones located in grocery stores. Again, you can definitely find preservative-free, single-vial doses there as well. As flu season begins to ramp up, many cities and towns offer flu clinics where you simply wait in line and receive your vaccination. And, bonus, they’re usually given for free. Many ob-gyns and general practices can vaccinate you with an appointment too.
Note that when the flu begins to become widespread in the fall and winter months, flu shots can become difficult to secure. If you find yourself in a jam, and can’t find a place to get your vaccination, check out the CDC’s flu shot finder website.
There are a few instances where a pregnant person shouldn’t receive the vaccination. If you’re suffering from an illness of any sort, experts typically advise waiting until you’re recovered to get the flu shot, since your immune system is already compromised. According to the CDC, anyone who’s had a severe reaction to the flu shot in the past or anyone with a severe allergy to the vaccine’s ingredients may also not be able to get the flu shot. In these circumstances, it’s important to talk to your provider and let them know if you’re allergic to any medications, vaccines or anything else. “Those people who have a history of significant adverse reactions to vaccine injections should make their healthcare provider aware, so proper precautions can be taken,” Ross says.
Previously, people with life-threatening egg allergies were advised to get the flu shot with caution or avoid it altogether, as the vaccine has an egg base. However, the CDC has recently said that additional safety measures are no longer recommended for flu vaccination in people with egg allergies. Instead, the org says that the vaccine should be given in a setting where allergic reactions are quickly recognized and treated.
And despite the strong recommendation to get the flu shot, pregnant people are advised against receiving the nasal spray version of the vaccine. Manglani says, “the nasal spray vaccine is never approved for use during pregnancy. This is because it’s a live attenuated vaccine. Live vaccines are not approved in pregnancy because there’s a possible risk to baby.”
So, what if you’re unable to get the flu vaccine while pregnant, whether you’ve waited too long and supply has run out or you have a condition that prevents you from being vaccinated? What’s the best way to keep you and baby safe during flu season? There are certain precautions you can take, the CDC notes:
- Build healthy habits to protect yourself: According to Ross, this includes practicing good hygiene by washing your hands thoroughly after touching railings, doorknobs and being out in public; avoiding contact with your nose, eyes, mouth and face; avoiding close contact with sick people and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. She also says pregnant people should maintain a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, staying active and eating a healthy diet.
- Get the flu shot for the rest of the family: If you have other kids in the home, have them get their flu shot as soon as possible (preferably before baby is even born) to avoid bringing germs into the home from school and other activities.
- Keep visitors at bay and limit trips outside the home: It’ll become a revolving door of visitors when you bring baby home, but don’t be afraid to get a little choosy if baby’s born during a bad flu season. Limit guests to immediate family only, and make it exceptionally clear that no one should visit if they have symptoms of any type of illness. Even before baby is born, don’t be afraid to limit your interactions with people if they have symptoms.
- Breastfeed baby, if possible: Breastfeeding will also offer additional protection to newborns. Breastfeeding people pass antibodies through breast milk, reducing an infant’s chances of getting sick with the flu, says Jennifer Pitotti, MD, an ob-gyn at CU Rocky Mountain OB-GYN.
It can be tough to know what the right precautions to take are with all the misinformation out there, but getting your flu shot during pregnancy is an easy and safe way to protect yourself and baby. “Getting vaccinated against certain illnesses saves lives,” Ross says. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your ob-gyn with any questions or concerns—it’s what they’re there for.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
Kara Manglani, CNM, is a certified nurse-midwife. She currently works as a pediatric critical care nurse with NYU Langone Medical Center. She earned her nursing degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her nurse-midwifery training from Columbia University’s School of Nursing.
Jennifer Pitotti, MD, is an ob-gyn at CU Rocky Mountain OB-GYN. She earned her medical doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University and completed her ob-gyn residency at Albert Einstein School of Medicine. She also earned a master’s degree in clinical science from CU’s clinical science graduate program.
Alex Polotsky, MD, is the fellowship director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Colorado in East Denver. He earned his medical degree, as well as a master’s degree, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He finished his ob-gyn residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital–Cornell Medical Center and his fellowship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Sherry A. Ross, MD, FACOG, is an ob-gyn with over 25 years of experience. She’s the author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.. Ross obtained her medical degree from New York Medical College and spent her residency at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. She currently practices at Providence St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Flu Vaccine Safety and Pregnancy, August 2023
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, The Flu Vaccine and Pregnancy, 2023
Clinical Infectious Diseases, Effectiveness of Seasonal Trivalent Influenza Vaccine for Preventing Influenza Virus Illness Among Pregnant Women: A Population-Based Case-Control Study During the 2010–2011 and 2011–2012 Influenza Seasons, November 2013
Clinical Infectious Diseases, Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness in Preventing Influenza-associated Hospitalizations During Pregnancy: A Multi-country Retrospective Test Negative Design Study, 2010–2016, October 2018
Translational Pediatrics, Risk of preterm birth in maternal influenza or SARS-CoV-2 infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis, April 2023
International Journal of Infectious Diseases, The effect of influenza virus infection on pregnancy outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies, February 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines for Family and Caregivers, November 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Science Summary: CDC Studies on Thimerosal in Vaccines
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thimerosal and Vaccines, August 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Find Flu Vaccines
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Healthy Habits to Help Protect Against Flu, August 2021
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