The Dangers of the Flu During Pregnancy and What to Do

Getting the flu while pregnant puts you and your baby at risk for serious complications. The flu can be incredibly dangerous for pregnant women and developing babies. That's why it's so important to recognize the symptoms early and get immediate medical attention if you think you may have the flu while pregnant.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover everything you need to know about the flu during pregnancy including the symptoms, risks and complications, how it affects your baby's immune system, and most importantly, what to do if you're pregnant and come down with the flu.

Symptoms of the Flu During Pregnancy

The symptoms of influenza or "the flu" during pregnancy are very similar to the symptoms experienced by women who are not pregnant. According to the CDC and other health organizations, the most common symptoms of the flu when you're pregnant include:

  • Fever of 100°F (37.8°C) or higher
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches and muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chest discomfort

Some pregnant women with the flu also experience sneezing, wheezing, appetite loss, and swollen lymph nodes. The symptoms often come on suddenly and can range from mild to severe.

The fever that accompanies the flu is one of the most telling signs. Flu fever is usually high (100°F to 102°F) and lasts for 3 to 4 days. Coughing can become severe and last for 2 or more weeks.

It's important to note that you don't have to have every single symptom to have the flu. Some pregnant women, especially those in the early stages of pregnancy, may only experience a few symptoms like fatigue and muscle aches before recovering.

The takeaway: The flu causes fever, body aches, headache, fatigue and respiratory symptoms like cough and sore throat. The symptoms are similar in pregnant and non-pregnant women. A high fever along with body aches is one of the most common symptom combinations.

Risks and Complications of Getting the Flu While Pregnant

There are some serious risks associated with getting the flu during pregnancy for both the mother and the developing baby. Here are some of the biggest concerns and complications:

Risks for the Mother

  • Pneumonia - Pregnant women are 5 times more likely to develop pneumonia as a complication from the flu due to changes in the immune system and lungs. This is the most common serious complication.

  • Hospitalization - Approximately 20% of pregnant women with the flu are hospitalized each year, compared to just 5% for non-pregnant women.

  • Dehydration - Fever, vomiting and diarrhea increase the risk of dehydration. This can be very dangerous during pregnancy.

  • Sinus and ear infections - Pregnancy makes women more susceptible to other respiratory infections.

  • Preterm labor and birth - The flu increases the risk of going into labor prematurely by 2 to 4 times.

Risks for the Baby

  • Birth defects - Fever during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, may slightly increase the risk of certain birth defects.

  • Miscarriage or stillbirth - The flu may increase the risk of pregnancy loss, per some studies.

  • Prematurity - Babies born early due to preterm labor are at higher risk for health problems.

  • Low birth weight - The flu is linked to lower average birth weights, even in full-term babies.

The flu also puts newborns at high risk. Babies under 6 months old have the highest rates of hospitalization and death from flu among children. Infants born to mothers with the flu during pregnancy are more likely to have adverse outcomes like preterm birth and low birth weight.

The takeaway: The flu significantly increases the risks of hospitalization, pneumonia, preterm birth, low birth weight and other complications for both mom and baby. It can be very dangerous during pregnancy.

How the Flu Affects Baby's Immune System

When a pregnant woman gets the flu, it can also impact the developing baby's immune system both in utero and after birth. Here's how:

  • The normal immune system changes during pregnancy make women more susceptible to flu, which may get passed on to baby.

  • Flu activation in mom during pregnancy is associated with abnormal immune function in the baby, per some research.

  • Babies under 6 months old cannot get the flu vaccine. Without mom's antibodies from the shot, they lack protection against the virus.

  • Infants who get the flu have high rates of hospitalization and complications due to their underdeveloped immune systems.

  • Flu infection in infancy could potentially have long term effects on immune function and response to other illnesses.

The takeaway: When mom gets the flu during pregnancy, it may negatively impact baby's developing immune system and make them more vulnerable to flu complications after birth. Mom's antibodies from the flu shot help protect the baby.

What to Do If You're Pregnant and Have the Flu

If you are pregnant and experiencing any flu symptoms like high fever, cough, body aches or fatigue, it's important to seek medical attention right away. Here are some steps to take:

Contact your doctor - Call your obstetrician or other pregnancy care provider and let them know you may have the flu. They may want to monitor you closely or test you for influenza.

Get emergency care for severe symptoms - If you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, dehydration or very high fever, get emergency medical care immediately. Don't delay.

Take antiviral drugs - Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications like Tamiflu to help treat the flu and reduce complications. These work best started within 2 days of getting sick.

Get lots of rest - Resting helps your body fight infection. Avoid strenuous activity until the fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. Stay home from work or school to recover.

Drink fluids - Stay hydrated with water, broth, electrolyte beverages like Gatorade or coconut water. If vomiting or diarrhea make it hard to stay hydrated, call your doctor right away.

Take OTC medications if recommended - Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help reduce fever and body aches. Cough drops and decongestants may also help relieve symptoms.

The takeaway: Seek medical attention right away if you have flu symptoms during pregnancy. Take antivirals if prescribed and rest at home while staying hydrated. Call your doctor immediately for any concerning or severe symptoms.

How to Prevent the Flu During Pregnancy

The best way to keep you and your developing baby safe is to avoid getting the flu during pregnancy in the first place. Here are some prevention tips:

  • Get the flu shot - The flu vaccine is safe during pregnancy and highly recommended. It's the best way to protect yourself and pass antibodies to your baby.

  • Wash hands frequently - Wash with soap and water or use hand sanitizer often, especially after touching shared surfaces or being in public places.

  • Avoid close contact with sick people - Stay away from anyone with flu symptoms. Remind friends and family to stay away if they are ill.

  • Avoid touching your face - Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless your hands are clean. These are entry points for germs.

  • Disinfect shared surfaces - Use disinfecting wipes or sprays to clean doorknobs, remotes, phones and other household items that could harbor flu germs.

  • Get enough sleep - Aim for 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night to keep your immune system strong. Being run down makes you more susceptible.

  • Eat a healthy diet - Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated. Proper nutrition supports immunity.

  • Avoid crowds - Skip crowded events, travel and public transit when flu is widespread in your community to limit exposure.

  • Ask sick people to keep their distance- If coworkers, friends or family are ill, politely ask them to keep their germs away from you while pregnant.

  • Stay home if you get sick - Don't go to work or run errands if you have flu symptoms. You could spread the illness to others.

The takeaway: Get the flu shot, practice good hygiene and self-care, and avoid contact with sick people to prevent influenza during pregnancy. The flu shot is the best line of defense.

Conclusion: Don't Take Chances with the Flu During Pregnancy

Catching the flu while pregnant is no small thing. The risks of complications and adverse outcomes for both mom and baby make influenza incredibly dangerous during pregnancy.

If you experience any flu symptoms like fever, cough, body aches or fatigue, contact your doctor right away and seek medical attention, especially if symptoms are severe. The flu can progress rapidly in pregnant women so early treatment is key.

Your best bet is to prevent the flu during pregnancy altogether. Getting the flu vaccine as soon as it's available each season is the most effective way to protect yourself and your developing baby from the flu and its potentially serious complications.

Combined with good hygiene habits like hand washing, avoiding sick people, disinfecting surfaces and getting enough sleep, you can minimize your chances of coming down with the flu during your pregnancy. Staying healthy provides the best start for both you and your baby.