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. So here’s the straight talk from the experts about getting the flu shot during pregnancy—whether it’s safe, what the risks and benefits are, and how it can affect baby in utero.
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 and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists whole-heartedly assert that it’s completely safe. The official recommendation from ACOG states, “ACOG continues to recommend that all women receive the influenza vaccine. This is particularly important during pregnancy. Influenza vaccination is an essential element of prenatal care.” And the CDC agrees, saying, “CDC and ACIP recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated during any trimester of their pregnancy. It is very important for pregnant women to get the flu shot.”
Benefits of getting the flu shot during pregnancy
Getting the flu shot while pregnant is critically important because the flu can adversely affect both mom and baby. Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says, “During pregnancy, the flu is more likely to cause serious illness in pregnancy compared to those women who are not pregnant. In pregnancy, there are changes in the immune system, the heart and the lungs that make pregnant women more prone to severe illness from the flu, which can lead to hospitalization or even death.”
And as beneficial as the flu shot is for pregnant women, 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 she’s 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, a certified nurse-midwife and owner of the blog, The Fertile Times.
- 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.
- 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. As you can imagine, it can be pretty stressful if baby is born during flu season. But rest assured that if you’ve received the flu shot at any time during your pregnancy (up until about week 38, since it takes two weeks for baby to fully receive the antibodies) 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 of getting the flu during pregnancy.
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t expect many adverse side effects from receiving the flu vaccine. The CDC indicates that flu shot side effects can include redness and soreness at the injection site, mild fever, body aches, headache and fatigue. 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 lately about the flu shot possibly causing miscarriage. Here’s why: a small-scale study was published in the journal Vaccine in Sept. 2017. The study sought to find a link between miscarriage and the flu shot by studying a small group of women who had received the flu shot over two consecutive years. But it turns out the findings indicate the study was not able to establish a causal relationship between repeated influenza vaccination and [miscarriage].
Further, Alex Polotsky, MD, head 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 has been disproven countless times, many parents still find themselves concerned about the possibility. The study pointed the finger at Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative sometimes used in vaccines.
However, according to the CDC, “Since 2003, there have been nine CDC-funded or conducted studies that have found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and [autism].” Despite that, the CDC asserts that “between 1999 and 2001, thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for some flu vaccines” as a preventative measure until the link was disproved by further studies. For thimerosal-free flu vaccines, simply ask for the preservative-free, single-dose vials. They’re available almost anywhere that offers seasonal flu shots.
When NOT to get the flu shot
There are a few instances where a pregnant woman should not receive the vaccination. As with anyone, you should not get the flu shot if you are suffering from an illness of any sort, since your immune system is already compromised. It’s fine to wait until you are well to get the flu shot.
And despite the strong recommendation to get the flu shot, pregnant women 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 is a possible risk to baby. In pregnancy, a woman is immunocompromised and could theoretically get the flu from the live vaccine.”
Finally, since the flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, you should talk to your doctor if you have an egg allergy of any sort.
The CDC and ACOG agree it’s safe to get the flu shot at any point during your pregnancy. According to Jennifer Pitotti MD, an ob-gyn at CU Rocky Mountain OB/GYN, “The flu vaccine is considered safe at any point in pregnancy but data is more limited for first trimester vaccination. However, the potential risk of first trimester vaccination must be weighed against the significant known risks of having the flu while pregnant.”
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 baby-making during flu season, add a flu shot to your to-do list.
Where to Get a Flu Shot
You can get a flu shot pretty much anywhere. Most pharmacies offer them, even the ones located in grocery stores. And yes, 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 often given for free. If you’d prefer the comfort and privacy of a doctor’s office, we totally understand. Many ob-gyns and just about all general practitioners can vaccinate you with an appointment.
Note that when the flu begins to become widespread (often in December to throughout the month of February), flu shots can become very difficult to find. 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.
What to Do if You Are Unable to Get the Flu Shot
So, what if you are unable to get the flu shot 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?
- 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’s 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 no one should visit if they have symptoms of any type of illness.
- Breastfeed baby. Breastfeeding will also offer additional protection to newborns. Breastfeeding mothers pass antibodies through breast milk, reducing an infant’s chances of getting sick with the flu, Pitotti says.
Updated March 2018