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What to do if you get the flu while pregnant

When you’re expecting, a healthy baby is your top priority—and that means taking care of your own health, especially during cold and flu season. Pregnancy naturally suppresses your immune system, which can mean you more easily catch common illnesses. Even though the flu is fairly common, it can be more dangerous while carrying a child. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself. And, if you think you’ve been exposed, your healthcare provider can guide you through it. Here’s how.

How to prevent the flu during pregnancy

The first, and best, way to avoid catching the flu while pregnant is simple: Get an influenza vaccine. It’s completely safe for expectant mothers—just be sure to request the seasonal flu shot, not the nasal spray immunization. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all pregnant women be immunized (and share a list of studies that show it’s safety and efficacy if you’re worried). 

An added bonus? Your baby will be born with protection during those vulnerable early months. “Maternal flu antibodies that are produced after getting the flu vaccine cross the placenta to provide protection to babies,” explains Jessica Madden, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and the medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. “Thus, maternal flu vaccine is the best way to protect a newborn baby from getting the flu.”

Then, be sure to practice the three simple hygiene rules that have become routine thanks to COVID-19:

  1. Practice proper handwashing
  2. Avoid touching your face
  3. Minimize close contact with sick people

Remember, it takes a couple days for infected people to start showing symptoms, so be careful. If you’re pregnant and someone in your household has the flu, take extra steps to protect yourself. The first several days after being infected are the worst for contagion (spreading it to others), according to the CDC. Keep your distance from the sick person, wear a mask when you need to be in the same room, wipe down surfaces, and avoid using shared items. When in doubt, wash your hands.

What happens if I get the flu while pregnant?

If you think you may have caught the flu while pregnant, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Early detection and treatment of the flu in pregnant mothers is related to better outcomes, according to the CDC. 

Your body is already working hard to grow and nurture a human being. An infection like influenza adds additional stress to your system—putting you at a higher risk for serious flu complications such as “fevers at the very least and other secondary infections,” explains Snehal Doshi, MD, the CEO of Millennium Neonatology.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, symptoms of the flu during pregnancy include:

  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath/cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Sudden chills or fever
  • Body aches

RELATED: COVID-19 vs. the flu vs. a cold

If you experience any of these flu symptoms, take them seriously. Tell your primary care physician and your obstetrician. “Pregnant women are at risk of developing serious complications from influenza virus including pneumonia, having to be admitted to the hospital or intensive care unit, and death,” says Dr. Madden.

There are specific risks to your developing baby as well. Dr. Madden warns of pregnancy complications which include “miscarriage and prematurity … also concerns that flu-related fevers can cause babies to develop neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.”

If you have severe flu symptoms such as dehydration, high fever, or difficulty breathing, you should go to the hospital or seek emergency care immediately. This is especially true in cases where the mother has pre-existing conditions that make flu complications more likely, such as diabetes (including gestational diabetes) or asthma. As with most issues that arise in pregnancy, it’s better to be safe than sorry!

What can I take for the flu while pregnant?

Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any treatments—even over-the-counter medications. Your physician can help you figure out which methods are the safest for you and your unborn baby. 

Antiviral medications

If you realize you have the flu within 48 hours of your first symptoms, the best treatment is an antiviral drug that can reduce the severity and length of your illness. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or Relenza (zanamivir) are considered safe for pregnant women, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Oral oseltamivir is recommended because it has the most data to show it’s beneficial, according to the CDC.

Over-the-counter remedies

Most physicians consider Tylenol (acetaminophen) safe to take during pregnancy to reduce fever or relieve body aches. Pair that with lots of rest, plenty of fluids, and natural treatments.

Flu remedies for pregnancy

If you have the flu, all you want to do is pop a Nyquil and drift off to a long night’s sleep. During pregnancy, most combination medications like that are off-limits. Take heart—there are some home remedies that provide real relief:

  • Take a hot shower, or breathe warm, humid air from a facial steamer to help a cough.
  • Gargle with warm salt water if you have a sore throat or cough.
  • Drink hot tea with honey and lemon to soothe a stuffy nose and sore throat.
  • Use a saline rinse to loosen nasal congestion and mucus.
  • Apply warm and cool compresses for muscle aches and sinus pain.
  • Hydrate with warm broths and eat bland food (like toast) if you’re having stomach issues.
  • Rest as much as possible.

Getting the flu during pregnancy does have risks, but proper communication with your healthcare providers can help you feel better in a safe way. And if you haven’t yet, get your flu vaccination. Then you can ensure that your pregnancy is as healthy and worry-free as possible (at least when it comes to this particular concern!).