Three Things You Need to Know about the Flu and Pregnancy

While contracting COVID-19 is still a concern for communities nationwide, health experts are also expecting to see more winter flu cases. Severe illness from the flu can present itself in certain individuals, including the elderly, immunocompromised, and women who are pregnant. In fact, pregnant women have a much higher risk for developing complications from the flu throughout pregnancy and up to two weeks postpartum. In some instances, these complications can result in hospitalization and may become life threatening. Below, Dr. Kelli Burroughs, MD, Department Chairman of Obstetrics/Gynecology at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, answers the top three questions pregnant women ask about potential risks and how to avoid the flu this season.

What pregnancy complications can you experience from the flu?

Dr. Burroughs: During pregnancy, a woman’s immune system is naturally suppressed in order to protect her baby, but this also means it is easier for the mother to get sick herself. There is also additional stress put on a pregnant woman’s heart as her heart rate increases to supply blood to her baby. Even more, a pregnant woman’s lungs also experience stress as her lung capacity declines as the baby grows. Together, these factors increase the risk for certain health complications from the flu, including pneumonia, which can be very serious.

Contracting the flu can also have harmful effects on developing babies by increasing chances for miscarriage, low birth weight, preterm labor and premature birth. In addition, a high fever in the first trimester can increase the chance of certain birth defects, such as neural tube defects, which are defects of the brain and spinal cord.

How do you prevent the flu?

Dr. Burroughs: The best way to prevent the flu and severe illness from the flu is to get the influenza vaccine each year, which is something we recommend to both pregnant and non-pregnant people.

Flu shots have been given to millions of pregnant women, and there is substantial evidence that they are safe during any trimester of pregnancy. A 2018 study referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that getting a flu shot reduced a pregnant person’s risk of being hospitalized with the flu by an average of 40 percent. Flu vaccines can also help to protect babies from getting sick with the flu for the first few months after birth when they are too young to be vaccinated themselves. If you have had severe reactions to vaccines or have certain allergies, talk with your doctor to ensure the flu vaccine is safe for you. It is also worth noting that the influenza nasal spray is not recommended during pregnancy.

In addition to getting the flu vaccine, there are several preventative measures you can take to avoid getting ill, such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, regularly and properly washing your hands, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

If you are breastfeeding and have the flu, the CDC encourages women to continue breastfeeding as the mother’s antibodies can be passed down to her baby, offering additional protection to him or her, especially if the baby is too young to become vaccinated.

When should a pregnant woman seek medical care for the flu?

Dr. Burroughs: There are a number of common signs and symptoms for the flu, such as fever, cough, body aches, headaches, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and vomiting. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and you are pregnant, even if you have had a flu shot, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible to see if you qualify for antiviral treatment.

There are also more serious signs and symptoms that can result from the flu. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is crucial that you call 911 and seek emergency medical care immediately:

  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Severe or constant vomiting
  • Persistent dizziness, confusion or drowsiness
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fever or cough that improves, but then returns or worsens
  • Not urinating
  • High fever (above 102 degrees Fahrenheit) that is not responding to Acetaminophen
  • Decreased or no movement of your baby
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness or unsteadiness

If you get the flu vaccine and take precautionary measures this flu season, it is less likely that you will become infected or experience severe illness, which will help protect both you and your baby. To learn more about the flu or to schedule an annual flu vaccine, visit memorialhermann.org.  

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