Because it seems like everyone and their dog has come down with a case of the flu this season, plenty of people are on high-alert for any signs of sickness. This goes double for pregnant women, who may feel concerned about their unborn baby getting the flu. How does this tenacious virus affect the fetus in utero?
Although the unborn baby might not "catch" the flu in the classic sense, if the mother gets influenza, then the baby could experience some potentially serious complications from it. The high fever associated with the flu may also increase the baby's risk of birth defects, including neural tube defects, as explained by the March of Dimes. These particular complications affect the baby's brain and spinal cord.
Oh, and because life is straight-up unfair sometimes, pregnant women are more likely than other people to catch the flu because their immune system is somewhat compromised, according to Baby Center. Basically, a pregnant woman's body is working overtime to grow that baby, so some of the immune system's defenses are not quite at their peak. Yea, that sucks.
If that isn't enough, catching the flu during pregnancy may present some extra complications for the mom-to-be. Generally, pregnant women are more likely to develop a more severe case of the flu than non-pregnant women, due to the stressed-out immune system, as noted in Baby Center. Even a mild case of the flu is pretty terrible, so anything worse is worth avoiding.
If you're pregnant, it's especially important to follow basic flu prevention tips. This doesn't mean you have to live in a sterile plastic bubble until the due date, though. Staying away from sick people, washing your hands often, and disinfecting surfaces that might be contaminated with the flu are all effective everyday habits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even simply trying not to touch your nose, eyes, or face during the day is a good way to slow the spread of flu germs, they explained. This can be a surprisingly tricky habit to break, though.
Of course, one of the most effective ways to prevent the flu is with a flu shot. In general, it's safe for pregnant women to get the flu shot, because the chance of complication from the vaccine is relatively low, whereas the potential risks of contracting the flu during pregnancy are potentially severe, as explained in Harvard Health Publishing. If you have any specific concerns about getting the flu shot while pregnant, then discuss them with your doctor. Chances are, though, they will advise that you do get it, especially since the latest studies show that getting the flu vaccine while pregnant will not affect the baby.
If worst comes to worst and you do come down with the flu while pregnant, however, you aren't totally out of luck. There are still plenty of ways to protect yourself and the baby from the worst of influenza, even during a severe case. Get a flu test as soon as you feel the symptoms kicking in. If it's positive, take any antiviral drugs prescribed by the doctor, and treat any fever immediately, as noted by Baby Center. Immediate treatment can help counteract the flu's potentially negative effects on the baby, so try to see a doctor ASAP if you present flu symptoms. This is not the time to tough it out.
This flu season is scary stuff, sure, but you and your baby can likely stay safe and healthy by monitoring your health and following some basic flu safety measures. Hopefully you can both make it to the delivery date sick-free.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.