Influenza (flu) and pregnancy
It’s safe to get the flu shot during pregnancy. It protects you and your baby from serious health problems during and after pregnancy.
Pregnant women who get the flu are more likely than women who don’t get it to have problems, like preterm labor and premature birth.
If you think you have the flu, call your health care provider right away. Quick treatment can help prevent serious flu complications.
What is the flu?
Influenza (also called flu) is a serious disease. It’s more than just a runny nose and sore throat. The flu can make you very sick, and it can be especially harmful if you get it during and right after pregnancy.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads easily from person to person. When someone with the flu coughs, sneezes or speaks, the virus spreads through the air. You can get infected with the flu if you breathe it in or if you touch something (like a door handle or a phone) that has the flu virus on it and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth.
How can the flu harm your pregnancy?
Health complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, can be serious and even deadly, especially if you’re pregnant. If you get the flu during pregnancy, you’re more likely than other adults to have serious complications, so it’s best to get a flu shot before you get pregnant.
Pregnant women who get the flu are more likely than women who don’t get it to have preterm labor (labor that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and premature birth (birth that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy). Fever from the flu may be linked to birth defects, like neural tube defects, and other problems in your baby. A birth defect is a health condition that is present at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops, or in how the body works. Neural tube defects are birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.
How does the flu shot help protect you from the flu?
The flu shot contains a vaccine that helps prevent you from getting the flu. The flu shot can’t cause the flu. It’s safe to get a flu shot any time during pregnancy, but it’s best to get it before flu season (October through May). Even though you’re more likely to get the flu during flu season, you can get it any time of year.
There are many different flu viruses, and they’re always changing. Each year a new flu vaccine is made to protect against three or four flu viruses that are likely to make people sick during the upcoming flu season. Protection from a flu shot only lasts about a year, so it’s important to get a flu shot every year. You can get the shot from your health care provider, and many pharmacies and work places offer it each fall. Use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find out where you can get the flu vaccine.
In addition to protecting you from the flu, getting a flu shot also may help decrease your risk of having a stillbirth. Stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If you’re pregnant and haven’t had your flu shot, talk to your provider about getting one.
Is it safe to get a flu shot during pregnancy?
Yes. It’s safe for most pregnant women to get the flu shot. Tell your health care provider if you have any severe allergies or if you’ve ever had a severe allergic reaction to a flu shot. Severe allergic reactions to flu shots are rare, but if you have a life-threatening allergy to any flu vaccine ingredient, like egg protein, don’t get the flu shot. Most women with egg allergies can get the flu shot, but if you have severe egg allergies, you should get the flu shot in a medical setting (like a doctor’s office, hospital or health clinic) under the care of a provider who can recognize and manage severe allergic conditions.
What are signs and symptoms of the flu?
Signs of a condition are things someone else can see or know about you, like you have a rash or you’re coughing. Symptoms are things you feel yourself that others can’t see, like having a sore throat or feeling dizzy. Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:
- Cough or sore throat
- Feeling very tired
- Muscle or body aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Vomiting (throwing up) and diarrhea (more common in children)
Fever and most other symptoms can last a week or longer. But some people can be sick from the flu for a long time, including children, people older than 65, pregnant women and women who have recently had a baby.
Call your provider right away if you have any of these signs or symptoms:
- Feeling your baby move less or not at all
- High fever that doesn’t go down after taking acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Don’t take any medicine without checking with your provider first.
- Pain or pressure in the chest or belly
- Signs or symptoms of flu that get better but then come back with fever and a worse cough
- Sudden dizziness
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Vomiting that's severe or doesn't stop
How is the flu treated?
If you think you have the flu even if you’ve been vaccinated, call your health care provider right away. She may prescribe an antiviral medicine to prevent or treat the flu. Antivirals kill infections caused by viruses. They can make your flu milder and help you feel better faster. Antivirals also can help prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia. For flu, antivirals work best if you take them within 2 days of havign symptoms. Quick treatment with antiviral medicine can help prevent serious flu complications.
Two medicines are approved in the United States for preventing or treating the flu in pregnant women and women who recently had a baby. Talk to your provider about which one is right for you:
- Oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu®)
- Zanamivir (brand name Relenza®). This medicine is a powder that you breathe in by mouth. It isn’t recommended for people with breathing problems, like asthma.
If you have a fever, call your provider as soon as possible and take acetaminophen. If you have the flu, 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.
How can you stop the flu from spreading?
When you have the flu, you can spread it to others. Here’s what you can do to help prevent it from spreading:
- Stay home when you’re sick and limit contact with others.
- Don’t kiss anyone.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your arm. Throw used tissues in the trash.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before touching anyone. You also can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Use enough hand sanitizer so that it takes at least 15 seconds for your hands to dry.
- Use hot, soapy water or a dishwasher to wash your dishes and utensils.
- Don’t share your dishes, glasses, utensils or toothbrush.
Why is the flu so harmful during pregnancy?
The flu can be dangerous during pregnancy because pregnancy affects your immune system, heart and lungs. 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 viruses like the flu.
Another reason the flu can be harmful during pregnancy is that your lungs need more oxygen, especially in the second and third trimesters. 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 the flu. If you’re pregnant or had a baby within the last 2 weeks, you’re more likely than other women to have serious health problems from the flu.