Influenza (flu) and pregnancy
Influenza is commonly called the “flu.” Many people say they have the flu when they really have just a cold or a cough. If you do have influenza, it can cause serious illness. And for some people, it can be life-threatening. It can be especially harmful to pregnant women. Pregnant women are at high risk of having serious health problems from influenza.
Influenza is easily spread from person to person. When someone with influenza coughs, sneezes or speaks, the virus spreads through the air. You can get infected with influenza if you breathe it in. You also can get infected if you touch something (like a door handle or a phone) that has the influenza virus on it and then you touch your nose, eyes or mouth.
The best way to protect yourself from influenza is to get the influenza vaccine (flu shot) each year before flu season starts in October. You can get the shot from your health care provider. Many pharmacies and work places also offer it each fall. Even though you’re more likely to get influenza during flu season (October through May), you can get it any time of year.
What are symptoms of influenza?
You may have the influenza if you:
- Have a fever
- Have chills
- Have a cough
- Have a sore throat
- Have a runny or stuffy nose
- Have muscle or body aches
- Have headaches
- Feel very tired
- Have vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
For most people, symptoms last for a few days. But some people, including children, people older than 65 and pregnant women, can be sick from influenza for a longer time.
How can influenza harm your pregnancy?
Health complications from influenza, such as pneumonia, can be serious and even deadly, especially if you’re pregnant. Pregnant women who get influenza are more likely than women who don’t get it to have preterm labor and premature birth. These are labor and birth that happen too early, before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy. Premature birth can cause serious health problems for your baby.
Influenza can be harmful during pregnancy because pregnancy affects your immune system. Your immune system is your body’s way of protecting itself from illnesses and diseases. When your body senses something like a virus that can harm your health, your immune system works hard to fight the virus.
When you’re pregnant, your immune system isn’t as quick to respond to illnesses as it was before pregnancy. Your body knows that pregnancy is OK and that it shouldn’t reject your baby. So, your body naturally lowers the immune system’s ability to protect you and respond to illnesses so that it can welcome your growing baby. But a lowered immune system means you’re more likely to catch illnesses like influenza.
Another reason influenza can be harmful during pregnancy is that your lungs need more oxygen, especially in the second and third trimesters, for you and your baby. Your growing belly puts pressure on your lungs, making them work harder in a smaller space. You may even find yourself feeling shortness of breath at times. Your heart is working hard, too. It’s busy supplying blood to you and your baby. All of this means your body is stressed during pregnancy. This stress on your body can make you more likely to get an illness like influenza.
Is it safe to get a flu shot during pregnancy?
Yes. The influenza vaccine is safe at any time during pregnancy. Almost all women who are or will be pregnant during flu season can get the shot. Getting the flu shot can help protect you from getting influenza and spreading it to others.
Getting a flu shot during pregnancy is good for your baby, too. Babies born to women who get the vaccine during pregnancy are less likely to get sick with influenza.
Some pregnant women shouldn’t get the shot because they have a health problem that can be affected by the vaccine. For example, if you’re allergic to eggs, don’t get the shot because it’s made with eggs. Your health care provider can tell you if there are any reasons why you shouldn’t get the shot. But it’s safe for most pregnant women.
The 2012-2013 influenza vaccine protects you against seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu that spread around the world in 2009. It’s important to get the vaccine every year because the viruses are always changing, so protection from the vaccine only lasts about a year. You can get the vaccine from your health care provider or at places like local health clinics, health departments and pharmacies.
Pregnant women shouldn’t get the nasal influenza mist vaccine. It’s not effective for pregnant women and may cause health problems.
How is influenza treated?
If you have influenza symptoms, call your health care provider right away. He can give you medicines to help protect you and your baby from the infection. Some medicines can help fight influenza, but you need a prescription for them from your health care provider. It’s important to start these medicines right away.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two medicines for influenza:
- Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
Talk to your provider to see which medicine is right for you.
Fever and most other symptoms can last a week or longer. If you’re uncomfortable from fever, ask your health care provider if you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol®).
If you have influenza, get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. You may not want to eat much. Try eating small meals to help your body get better.
When should you call your health care provider?
Call your provider right away if you have any of these symptoms:
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the belly or chest
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Symptoms that get better but then come back with fever and worse cough
- High fever that doesn’t go down after taking acetaminophen
- Feeling your baby move less, or not at all
How can you stop influenza from spreading?
When you have influenza, you can spread it to others. Here’s what you can do to help prevent it from spreading:
- Stay home when you’re sick.
- Limit your contact with others.
- Don’t kiss anyone.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your arm. Throw used tissues in the trash.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before touching anyone. You also can use alcohol-based hand rubs (sanitizers).
- Use hot, soapy water or a dishwasher to wash your dishes and utensils.
- Don’t share your dishes, glasses, utensils or toothbrush.
For more information
Last reviewed October 2012
When to call your provider
- If you have heavy bleeding or bleeding for more than 24 hours
- If you have fever, chills or severe headaches
- If you have vision problems, like blurriness
- If you have quick weight gain or your legs and face swell