Pregnancy and the Flu Vaccine
Every winter, between November and April, people living in the Northern Hemisphere are faced with the flu season. Although the peak time for the flu is generally from late December to early March, people are encouraged to start getting their flu vaccine as early as October. However, when you are pregnant, you may be reluctant to get a flu shot. After all, you’re told to stay away from practically every other kind of medicine during this time, why should flu shots be any different? Because getting a flu vaccine may just save your life.
What is the Flu?
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a virus that affects the respiratory tract. It is not the same as a cold. It is also not related to the stomach flu. In fact, stomach flu is a bit of a misnomer since the flu in no way affects the stomach or intestines. While some people, especially children, may feel nauseous or experience vomiting or diarrhea when they have the flu, generally these "stomach flu" symptoms are related to some other type of virus, bacteria or parasite.
Typical flu symptoms include:
- Nasal Congestion
- Sore Throat
- Aching Muscles
- Severe Fatigue
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as much as 20% of the U.S. population gets infected with the influenza virus every year. Of these, more than 200,000 people will be hospitalized while 36,000 will die. Since the flu is a virus, antibiotics will not help. The best flu remedies are bed rest and drinking lots of liquids. However, your best method of flu prevention is getting the influenza vaccine.
Because the strain of influenza virus changes every year, it is necessary to get a flu shot annually. A flu vaccination, although not a permanent vaccine, will help lower a person’s chance of catching the flu each season by 80%. Those people who do manage to catch the flu virus despite getting their shot will likely experience fewer and milder symptoms.
The most common flu shot side effects include soreness or swelling at the point of injection, headache and a low-grade fever. However, these symptoms usually don’t last for more than a day.
Although it is recommended that everyone get a flu vaccine every year, it may be necessary for you to avoid getting a flu shot if you:
- Have had an adverse reaction to a flu shot before
- Have a fever
- Are severely allergic to eggs or egg products (the ingredients for the flu shot are grown inside eggs)
Pregnant women are considered to be in the high-risk group of those most vulnerable to getting the flu and are strongly urged to get a flu shot, especially if you have an increased risk of pregnancy complications due to a medical condition. While some doctors may avoid administering a vaccine to a woman who is very early in her first trimester, it is generally thought to be safe to receive the vaccine at any point during pregnancy.
Pregnant women have been found to have an increased risk of death or severe complications if they contract the flu during pregnancy. Although the general risk of death from the flu is quite low, one study showed that pregnant women have a nine times greater risk of death from flu compared to other adults. Additionally, since pregnant women have a weakened immune system, there is a greater chance of pneumonia or bronchitis developing. Even if you do not develop complications from your flu, your flu symptoms are much more likely to last longer if you are pregnant.
But what about your baby?
Generally speaking, the average flu won’t harm an unborn child. However, if your condition were to become serious, then there could be a chance of a miscarriage or preterm labor occurring. Once your baby is born, your constant close contact with your child will make your baby more susceptible to catching the flu. However, the flu virus is not thought to pass through breast milk.
While the flu shot is believed to be completely safe for both pregnant and breastfeeding women, FluMist, a nasal spray flu vaccine, is not. Unlike the flu shot, which contains killed flu virus, FluMist contains the live flu virus, thereby increasing your chances of catching the flu from the vaccine.
Preventing the Flu
Here are some things you can do to help lower your risk of catching or spreading the flu virus:
- Avoid large crowds whenever possible
- Wash your hands regularly
- When you cough or sneeze, be sure to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue
- Don’t pick up used tissues
- Avoid sharing cups and utensils
- If you do have the flu, stay home to avoid infecting others
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