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Pregnant women are more likely to develop serious complications from the flu. Common flu symptoms include fever, achiness, fatigue, headache, and a runny nose. Call your doctor immediately if you’re pregnant and have flu-like symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu, which is safe to take during pregnancy. It's also safe to get a flu shot when you're pregnant to prevent flu.
Why is the flu especially dangerous for pregnant women?
Pregnancy suppresses the immune system, and strains the heart and lungs. This can make catching the flu dangerous for pregnant women.
Your body naturally lowers its ability to protect you from illnesses during pregnancy so that your immune system won't reject your baby. Meanwhile, your heart and lungs work harder to supply blood and oxygen to you and your baby, and your lungs have to function in a smaller space because of pressure from your growing belly. All of this contributes to stress to your body, making you more vulnerable to illness in general.
Pregnant women who get the flu are at risk for serious complications that could require hospitalization, and their babies are at higher risk of not growing enough in the womb. The greatest concern is pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening illness that may also increase your risk of preterm labor. Pregnant women who get the flu also have a higher risk of flu-related complications during the postpartum period.
Of course, many moms-to-be who get the flu have no complications. But statistically, you're more likely to develop a severe case of it when you're pregnant.
What symptoms should I watch for?
Flu symptoms come on suddenly, and can include a fever, achiness, fatigue, headache, and cold symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, a cough, and chills. You may have diarrhea or be vomiting as well. Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms so she can decide whether you need treatment.
Get emergency medical help immediately if you notice any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- A fever or cough that gets better, but then returns or gets worse
- Persistent pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen
- Persistent dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, or lethargy
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Not feeling as much movement from your baby
- A high fever that doesn't respond to acetaminophen
- Severe weakness or unsteadiness
- Not urinating
- Severe muscle pain
Also, check with your doctor immediately if you have any other severe or concerning symptoms that aren't included on this list.
What should I do if I feel like I'm getting the flu?
Early treatment is key, so if you're pregnant (or have given birth or lost a pregnancy in the previous two weeks) and develop flu-like symptoms, call your doctor immediately to talk about what to do.
Your doctor will determine whether you need to go in for testing or treatment. Some providers will prescribe treatment over the phone or through online telemedicine portals if they think your symptoms are likely due to influenza. If you do need to go to the office, tests may include a nasal swab (best done in the first two days after you begin to get sick).
If you're home alone, have someone check on you often.
If you discover that you've been in close contact with someone who has the flu, call your doctor right away and ask whether treatment could reduce your chances of getting the flu. Keep in mind that people who have the flu are contagious beginning the day before they have symptoms and remain so for as long as a week after they become ill.
How should I treat the flu when I'm pregnant?
- Treat any fever right away (fever during early pregnancy may be associated with neural tube defects in newborns). Acetaminophen is the recommended treatment for fever when you're pregnant.
- Call your doctor right away if you have any flu symptoms. If your doctor confirms or suspects you have the flu, she will prescribe antiviral drugs. (See below.)
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- If you don't have an appetite, try eating small meals anyway to maintain your nutritional intake.
- Get lots of rest.
To avoid spreading the flu, keep your distance from others while you're sick.
Is it safe to take antiviral medicines like Tamiflu for flu during pregnancy?
Yes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an oral antiviral medication called oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is recommended for expectant moms because it has the most data available to suggest that it's safe and beneficial during pregnancy. Another antiviral sometimes prescribed for pregnant women with the flu is zanamivir (Relenza). However, there's not much data on whether this drug is safe to take during pregnancy.
Antiviral medications can make your illness less severe, help you feel better sooner, and prevent serious flu complications such as pneumonia. Antivirals work best when you start them within two days of experiencing symptoms.
Sometimes a doctor will prescribe an antiviral medicine to reduce the chances that you'll get sick. Or your doctor might decide that antivirals aren't needed unless you actually develop symptoms.
If antivirals are prescribed, you’ll be taking them for up to seven days. You’re still contagious while taking the medicine – for at least four days, and possibly longer – so take precautions around other people.
Taking the medicine with food may help prevent nausea and vomiting, the most common side effects of Tamiflu. (Nausea and vomiting can also be symptoms of the flu as well as pregnancy, of course.)
Note: Tamiflu is not the same as Theraflu. Tamiflu is the brand name for the antiviral medicine oseltamivir, which must be prescribed by a doctor. Theraflu is the brand name for an over-the-counter medicine that contains a pain reliever and other ingredients. It may soothe certain symptoms temporarily, but it won't stop the progression of the flu virus. Because it contains phenylephrine, taking Theraflu is not recommended during pregnancy.
How can I avoid catching the flu?
- Get a flu shot as soon as possible when it becomes available in the fall. It takes a couple of weeks for immunity to develop after you get the vaccine. However, even if you miss getting the vaccine in the fall, it's still worth getting it as late as March because flu activity can continue into the spring. Don't worry — you can't get the flu from the vaccine. Bonus: You'll also help protect your infant from the flu for as long as 6 months after birth. (See below for more information on the flu shot.)
- Wash your hands frequently, including immediately before eating, after sneezing, and after going to the bathroom. Use proper hand-washing techniques, rubbing both sides of your soapy hands for at least 20 seconds and rinsing with plenty of water. When soap and water aren't available, use disposable hand wipes or alcohol-based gel sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Don't cough or sneeze into your bare hands. That gets the virus all over your hands, where it can easily spread to others. Instead, cover your mouth with your arm and cough or sneeze into your sleeve. Or cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue, and throw it away right after using it. (Many experts recommend the sleeve method instead of a tissue because handling a tissue can still contaminate your hands and spread illness.) And if you do end up using your bare hands, wash them right away.
- Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. You may think your hands are clean, but if you touch a doorknob, a cup, a refrigerator handle, or any other item that someone else has touched with a virus-covered hand, your hands will carry the virus and can infect you.
- Regularly wipe down surfaces at home – such as toys, bedside tables, doorknobs, telephones, and bathroom and kitchen counters – with disinfectant. Viruses and bacteria can live for two to eight hours on hard surfaces.
- Stay away from people who are sick, including people in your household.
- If someone in your household has the flu, your doctor may advise you to take an antiviral medication.
Is it safe to get a flu shot during pregnancy?
Yes. The flu shot has been proven safe and effective for pregnant women and their developing babies at all stages of pregnancy, including the first trimester, according to the CDC and other government health agencies.
Not only is the flu shot safe during pregnancy; it's strongly recommended. Flu vaccinations significantly lower your chances of getting severe flu, and are very effective at protecting your baby.
You need a flu shot every year even if you've had one in previous years because different strains of flu surface each year. It's best to get the flu shot as soon as it's available in the fall — preferably by the end of October so you're protected before flu season begins. Find out more about the flu vaccine during pregnancy.