What to know about pregnancy and the flu

Pregnant woman receives vaccine at doctor's office

Pregnancy comes with a wide range of changes—some you might expect, and others you might not. While you likely won't be surprised by things like hormone changes and morning sickness, you may not be fully prepared for how pregnancy impacts your immune system.

When you're pregnant, it's more difficult for your immune system to fight off infections, including the flu. Compared to non-pregnant women of the same age, pregnant women are more likely to become very sick if they do catch the flu.

"If you get the flu while pregnant, it can lead to pneumonia (an infection in the lungs) and hospitalization," explains Lee S. Halpern, MD, FACOG, obstetrician at Main Line Health. "And there are some studies that suggest your baby might be at risk of premature birth and low birth weight."

Staying healthy is key to a smooth pregnancy. As you take your prenatal vitamins, stay on top of prenatal visits, eat a healthy diet and be sure to protect yourself from the flu. Here's how:

Protect yourself from the flu while pregnant

Avoiding the flu while pregnant is very similar to doing so while not pregnant. In order to protect yourself and your growing baby from the flu (and plenty of other illnesses), make sure you:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Stay away from others who are sick

Keep in mind—the most effective way to prevent the flu while pregnant is by getting your flu vaccine. This will lower your chances of getting the flu, and if you do get sick from the flu, it will likely be less severe.

What's more, getting the flu shot while pregnant can protect your baby for up to 6 months after they're born (and before they're eligible for their own flu vaccine).

"Getting the flu shot during pregnancy is safe for both you and your baby. However, the flu nasal spray is not approved for pregnant women because, unlike the shot, the nasal spray contains a live strain of the flu virus," says Dr. Halpern.

You can get the flu shot at any point in your pregnancy, but the ideal time is early in the year's flu season, which is usually October.

What should I do if I get the flu while pregnant?

Even if you take all the right precautions, it's still possible to get the flu. If you think you may have the flu during your pregnancy, contact your healthcare provider right away. Pregnant women can become very sick in a short amount of time—even if symptoms seem manageable at first.

Symptoms of the flu while pregnant include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Sudden chills or fever (100°F or more)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

If you do get the flu, your healthcare provider can prescribe antiviral medications that are safe for pregnant women. This, in addition to drinking plenty of water and resting, can help keep the time you are sick to a minimum. Antiviral medications can also prevent complications, such as pneumonia.

If you're feeling very uncomfortable, your provider can recommend other pregnancy-safe medications to ease symptoms.

The importance of staying healthy during pregnancy

If you're pregnant, your changing body is a constant reminder of the fact that you have a growing baby inside you. However, it can be easy to forget how much your daily actions can impact the health of you and your baby.

Keeping yourself healthy is a key component to helping your baby stay healthy both during pregnancy and once they are born. As you stock up your fridge with nutritious food, squeeze in time for some light exercise and do your best to get enough sleep, make sure you take steps to protect yourself and your baby from the flu this season.

Next steps:

Schedule an appointment with Lee S. Halpern, MD, FACOG
Learn more about prenatal visits at Main Line Health
Learn more about the flu shot