When you are pregnant your immune system doesn’t work as well. This is due to the fact that your body has lowered its defenses to help ensure that the baby isn’t rejected. Unfortunately, what’s good for the baby isn’t always what’s good for mom; a woman’s susceptibility to cold and flu skyrockets the moment she conceives. Fortunately, studies have shown that catching or having the flu rarely causes birth defects. However, being pregnant can increase mom’s risk of flu complications such as pneumonia. Let’s discuss what treatment options and prevention steps you can take as an expectant mother.
First, it’s important to be able to tell cold and flu symptoms from pregnancy symptoms. Although you are more susceptible to cold and flu while pregnant, you are also more likely to suffer certain flu-like symptoms. For example, nasal stuffiness during pregnancy is common because pregnancy-related hormones affect the nasal passages. In most cases, if your nasal stuffiness is not accompanied by other cold or flu symptoms such as fever, achiness, weakness, coughing, etc., then you’re not sick—you’re just pregnant.
Treating a Cold or Flu While Pregnant
If you are sick, you may find that your appetite has decreased. It is important, however, to continue to eat and nourish your body as you normally would, for your baby’s health as well as your own. If a full meal seems too intimidating and unappetizing, try eating smaller meals—and more of them—throughout the day.
There is a great deal of debate among doctors about which medications are safe for a pregnant woman battling a cold or flu. Below is a list of medicines that are considered safe:
Medications That Are Safe:
- Acetaminophen: Used to treat aches and pains
- Chlorpheniramine: Antihistamine
- Pseudoephedrine: Decongestant (except during first trimester)
- Destromethorphan: Cough suppressant
- Guaifenesin: Expectorant
The medications above are available as over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, but you should check labels carefully, and only use over-the-counter medications that are recommended by your doctor. There are many over-the-counter medications that can do more harm than good.
Medications That Aren’t Safe:
- Aspirin: Can cause bleeding
- Ibuprofen: No studies have been done on pregnant women
Most of the drugs listed above are found in over-the-counter cold and flu medicines and cough syrups. As medicine and technology improve, many drugs that were once thought to be harmful are shown not to be, and can be recommended for use during pregnancy. There is still a little debate about whether guaifenesin is a Class B (safe) or Class C (unsafe) drug for pregnant women. Talk to your healthcare professional before taking any medications for cold and flu symptoms while pregnant.
If your pregnancy has advanced beyond 12 weeks, these medications are safe if used moderately and sparingly (be sure to heed to directions on the packaging):
- Robitussin DM
- Vicks cough syrup
- Ricola herbal lozenges
If you are experiencing stomach-related flu symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting, try to meet your nutritional needs with a liquid diet—water, fruit juice, chicken broth, etc. Once you find that you are able to tolerate these kinds of foods, you can expand your diet to include gentle, dry carbohydrates such as crackers, toast, etc. Call your doctor if you are unable to keep food down for more than 24 hours.
Other recommendations if you’ve already caught the flu:
- Get plenty of rest
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of liquids: try to have eight to ten glasses of water or juice (diluted with water) each day
- Continue taking prenatal vitamins to make up for lost nutrients
- Sleep slightly propped up to help drain nasal passages
- Use saline nasal sprays or steam inhalation when congested
- Add honey and lemon to non-caffeinated hot tea to help soothe a sore throat
- Use a room humidifier at night
- Soothe sinus pain and reduce congestion by applying warm compresses to your face (around your eyes and across your cheekbones)
- Notify your doctor if your fever is higher than 101°, or if your illness lasts longer than expected or worsens
Antibiotics and Pregnancy
Many antibiotics are perfectly safe to take while pregnant, but some are not. Make sure that your doctor knows you are pregnant before he or she prescribes any kind of medication. Antibiotics are not helpful if you have a cold or the flu, and some experts feel can cause more harm than good by killing the “good” bacteria that live in the body. However, if there is a bacterial infection such as bronchitis or sinusitis, antibiotics should be considered.
Preventing Colds and Flu During Pregnancy
A flu shot is the number one way to prevent the flu (but there is no vaccine that will prevent the common cold). Viral illnesses are known to last up to three times longer in pregnant women, so a flu shot is recommended for pregnant women, at any stage of pregnancy. The flu shot doesn’t contain a live virus, so you cannot get the flu from the vaccine. The flu shot is even safe during breastfeeding, and it cannot cause you or your nursing baby to get sick. Other things you can do to help prevent a cold or flu include:
- Eating healthy
- Regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- Washing your hands frequently
- Staying away from people who are sick
In recent years, some ill-informed groups (with the help of certain irresponsible celebrities) have spread unfounded misinformation and anxiety about vaccinations, specifically concerning the use of a preservative known as thimerosal. There is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines containing this preservative can have any negative effect on a pregnant woman or her baby, and the one study that purported to show otherwise has been widely discredited in the medical community. Additionally, for the very paranoid, most clinics still use preservative-free flu vaccine for their pregnant patients.