What you should know about pregnancy and influenza
Getting the flu while pregnant can be dangerous to health. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent getting the flu, and also treat it.
Pregnant mums are extra careful about their health due to the precious little cargo they carry in their wombs. One common illness that can be quite harmful to both mum and developing baby if contracted, is influenza (flu). What are the risks of flu during pregnancy? What can a pregnant woman take for flu?
In this article, we’ll take you through a quick refresher on what flu actually is, how it can impact a pregnancy, and the answers to the question: what can a pregnant woman take for flu?
Flu vs. cold: A quick recap
It’s quite common for many people to confuse flu with the common cold. They are definitely not the same.
While they are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. In general, they share common symptoms like congestion and cough, but flu symptoms are much more intense.
Usually, colds will not lead to complications like bronchitis or pneumonia. On the other hand, untreated flu can result in very severe health complications.
The symptoms of a cold include sneezing, blocked/ runny nose and sore throat, and the onset of these are gradual.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Flu symptoms include:
- Body aches
- Intense fatigue
- Chest congestion
- Runny/ blocked nose
Unlike the common cold, the onset of these symptoms is sudden. For example, you’ll go to bed feeling fine, but wake up with body aches and high fever.
Pregnancy and flu: Why is the flu dangerous?
The flu is more likely to cause health complications in a pregnant woman, than in a woman who is not pregnant. This is because during pregnancy, a woman experiences changes to her immune system, lungs and heart, making her more vulnerable to severe illness from flu.
If a pregnant woman gets flu, it can not only affect her health negatively, but that of her developing baby. If she has pre-existing conditions like asthma or diabetes, then contracting the flu can be extremely dangerous.
Associate Professor Tan Thiam Chye of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital explains, “the influenza virus itself has not been shown to cause birth defects. However, having a high fever during the first trimester may increase the chance for birth defects such as spina bifida. In the second and third trimester, it may impair the growth of the foetus.”
Potential flu complications during pregnancy
According to SingHealth, these are some of the complications that can arise for a pregnant woman with flu:
- Penumonia: An inflammation of the lungs, this is the most common complication of the flu.
- Meningitis: If the virus spreads to the brain, it can cause inflammation there.
- Bronchitis: This is an infection of the lungs.
- Myocarditis: Inflammation of the heart muscle.
- Premature birth and miscarriage: May be caused by a high, untreated fever in pregnancy (over 38.5 degrees C).
Because of these rather severe complications, A/Prof Tan Thiam Chye suggests that pregnant women with flu symptoms seek medical advise without delay.
What can a pregnant woman take for flu? How to prevent it?
The best protection against influenza while pregnant is the flu shot. It is safe to get at all stages of pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that the flu shot has been given to millions of pregnant women over years, with no adverse incidents. The flu shot cannot give you flu.
In fact, getting the flu shot can reduce the risk of influenza-related complications by half. A 2018 study shows a 40% drop in the risk of a pregnant woman being hospitalised after getting the flu shot.
This vaccination also protects your baby. A/Prof Tan Thiam Chye explains: “A flu vaccine helps your immune system produce antibodies to fight the flu infection and helps your baby inherit these antibodies as well. Your baby is then equipped to fight off possible flu infections, even before he or she is born.”
Flu vaccines should be done annually, as they are generally updated to include protection against seasonal flu strains.
We need the flu vaccine even more in the tropics
Dr Leong Hoe Nam is an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital. He says that unlike in other countries when a rise in flu cases is reported in the colder months, in tropical countries like Singapore there are two flu seasons: April to June and toward the end of the year.
But,our tropical climate actually helps the flu virus to thrive through the year. Talking to The New Paper, Dr Leong explains that when there is heavy rain (like during the monsoons) there is higher ambient humidity. This results in less evaporation of fluids that have the flu virus. In turn, this means that the virus stays strong and survives for longer.
It doesn’t help that many of us work in closed, air-conditioned environments — perfect conditions for the flu to spread rapidly.
What happens if you haven’t got the flu shot and contract influenza while pregnant? What can a pregnant woman take for flu?
It’s important to see a doctor the moment you experience flu symptoms. The earlier the treatment starts, the more successful it is, and the better chance there is of preventing complications.
According to the official NSW Health Ministry website, the following is the usual treatment protocol for a pregnant woman with the flu (but this may differ from country to country).
Here, the biggest worry is the potential effect a pregnant mum’s fever might have on the foetus. Doctors will generally prescribe a pregnancy-safe fever drug, and may discuss treatment with anti-influenza medication.
Second and third trimesters
Getting the flu now may result in grave health issues for the mum (as discussed previously). The risk of the effect of high fever on the developing baby remains.
Doctors will most probably treat the flu with anti-influenza medication, prescribe medication to reduce the fever, and monitor the developing baby’s health.
Other important precautions
In addition to getting the flu shot, pregnant woman should take the following precautions to protect themselves from contracting influenza:
- Clean your hands well and often. Soap and running water is the best way to do this, but in their absence, use hand sanitiser. Remember to carry a bottle of hand sanitiser with you.
- Wear a face mask if your immune system is down.
- Try to avoid sick family members as much as possible. Again, wearing a face mask can help.
- Sneeze into your elbows.
We hope we’re answered your question, “what can a pregnant woman take for flu?”, and more.
For more useful reading: How to identify dangerous flu symptoms in your kid.