If you will be pregnant this fall or winter, congratulations! This is a very exciting time for you. Your focus should be on your changing body and the joy ahead, not the impending flu season. However, if you are wondering about any special precautions you should take for yourself, your baby and any young children you may have, we can help. Read on to learn the latest about this year's flu season and special considerations for pregnant women.
Flu viruses constantly change, and flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways. It's impossible to predict the timing, severity and length of the flu season from year to year. That's why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age six months and older get vaccinated against the flu each year. And it's especially important for women who are pregnant or plan to get pregnant.
Flu experts say that pregnant women are at higher risk for complications associated with flu viruses, regardless of which virus strikes or which trimester they are in. These complications include early labor and severe pneumonia or even deaths.
Here's what you need to know about the flu virus so you can protect yourself and your family as the flu season approaches:
• If you're pregnant, get your flu shot. According to the CDC, the best way to protect yourself against influenza is the flu vaccine. Talk to your health care provider about which type of vaccine is best for you. You may get the standard three-strain, or trivalent, vaccine or the four-strain, or quadrivalent, vaccine that protects against one additional influenza strain. You may also have the option of getting an intradermal vaccine, which is injected into the skin instead of the muscle and uses a much smaller needle (for people who are afraid of needles), or a thimerosal-free vaccine. All types are considered safe for pregnant women during any trimester. The American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, together with the CDC, recommend the seasonal flu vaccine as an important step to protect your health and your baby's health.
• Be alert for news about where and when the seasonal flu vaccine will be available in your area. The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older be vaccinated against the flu, and they say it is especially important for pregnant women and young children. The vaccine will be available through your health care providers and also may be given at scheduled times at locations such as drugstores, schools and workplaces.
• Learn to recognize flu symptoms. Flu symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, shortness of breath, chills and fatigue. The novel H1N1 influenza virus ("swine flu") differs from seasonal flu in that a significant number of sufferers also experience diarrhea and vomiting.
• Call your health care provider immediately if you have flu symptoms to determine if you need to be seen. Don't guess about what's causing your symptoms. Ask your health care professional for guidance. Report any of the following symptoms right away: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting, decreased or no movement of your baby or a high fever that doesn't respond to medication recommended by your health care professional.
• Ask about treatment options for flu. If your health care provider decides you need treatment for seasonal flu, he or she will most likely prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). These drugs can help you feel better faster if taken within 48 hours of when your symptoms first appear. According to the CDC, treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) is recommended for pregnant women with suspected or confirmed influenza. Both can be taken during any trimester of pregnancy.
• Continue to breastfeed, even if you think you have the flu. Breast milk contains antibodies that help fight off infections like the flu. Even before a woman realizes she has flu symptoms her body has begun to make antibodies against the flu that are passed on to her baby through her breast milk and will protect her baby from getting sick with the flu. Therefore, you should keep breastfeeding your baby, even when you're sick with the flu. But, it's important to take every precaution to help keep your baby healthy. For example, consider expressing your breast milk with a breast pump and asking someone who isn't sick to feed the baby with a bottle if you have these flu symptoms: runny nose, sore throat, cough or fever. To further prevent your baby from getting the virus, try not to sneeze or cough in his or her face and wash your hands often with soap and water.
• Don't rely on surgical masks for protection against flu. The CDC isn't sure how effective face masks are at preventing the transmission of the flu. Therefore, the CDC doesn't recommend face masks unless you are caring for someone with a flu-like illness or can't avoid being in a crowded setting where you think flu likely is present.
• Plan ahead. If you will have an infant or young child during the upcoming flu season, now is the time to think about what you will do if you or your child becomes sick with the flu. Check with your child's school or day care about sick policies. It also can't hurt to stock up on hand sanitizer, tissues, disinfectants, soaps and anything else you may need if you become sick, including food. Being prepared helps you avoid a shopping trip and possibly spreading the virus.
• Don't panic about the flu, but don't ignore it either. Flu may be a threat to your health this time of year, and it is a particular concern for pregnant women who may be at risk for more serious complications from the flu. To help reduce your chances of infection, the CDC recommends these steps:
- Cover your nose and mouth whenever you cough or sneeze and use a tissue or your sleeve instead of your hands. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands well and often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Refrain from touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who could be sick with the flu.
- Ask your health care professional about any other specific steps you should take while pregnant or caring for young children.
- If you are pregnant and have flu symptoms, contact your health care professional right away.
For the latest information on flu vaccine availability for the flu season and other related information, visit: www.flu.gov.