During flu season, pediatrician Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP, is especially cautious. It starts with the obvious — getting vaccinated — and extends to the opening-doors-with-paper-towels kind of cautious. But when a sick five-month-old coughed in her face, even Dr. Altmann couldn’t dodge this year’s especially contagious influenza strain. The kicker? She was 38 weeks pregnant.
“It was my first time in 18 years as a doctor catching the flu!” Altmann told The Bump. “My OB was really worried. He said I had to keep the baby in while I was sick.”
In general, you don’t want to have a baby when you’re sick, Atlmann explains. This especially holds true when you have a fever. That’s when you’re most contagious and run the highest risk of passing on your illness to baby. Can’t shake the virus before you give birth? Typically, doctors will have to separate you from your newborn. But it won’t prevent you from breastfeeding , should you choose to do so — the antibodies are too important for baby. You’ll just have to wear a face mask.
But let’s backtrack. How can you prevent yourself from getting the flu in the first place?
“It’s recommended that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine, especially pregnant women,” says Altmann. “The flu can result in a high rate of pregnancy complications: pneumonia, even miscarriage. The vaccine is really still the best way to keep yourself and your family from getting the flu, even though it’s only 61 percent effective this year.”
The flu epidemic has been especially bad this year; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports over 8,000 flu-related hospitalizations since Oct. 1. The reason? “Every year, scientists study flu patterns and try to predict strains to put in the vaccine,” says Altmann. “This year, they chose not to change it from last year’s; this year’s vaccine covers the same three or four strains as last year. While they were correct in their predictions, they didn’t realize the H3N2 strain mutated. And that’s the strain in 95 percent of flu cases.”
Altmann says early flu indicators include a fever and cough. Next up: body aches and a sore throat. Symptoms will last for a full week or longer, and don’t necessarily include vomiting and diarrhea. Those are just indicative of a stomach bug.
“If your fever goes away and comes back a few days later, it could be a secondary infection like pneumonia,” Altmann warns. Always check with your own OB when you’re sick, and before you start taking any medications. Typically, Altmann says acetaminophen is considered safe during pregnancy. So you’re good to go with Tylenol. But avoid Aspirin and ibuprofen; depending on how far along you are, they can have different effects on fetal development, potentially damaging the heart valve.
Other ways to fight the flu include a healthy diet (heavy on vitamins C and D), fluids, rest and daily probiotics. “I recommend Greek yogurt; it has a ton of protein,” says Altmann.
Her biggest piece of advice is simple: “If you’re sick, stay home.” A day off? Try to embrace it.