Never thought of yourself as high-risk, health wise? If you're pregnant during flu season, consider yourself on the list. And, even if it's been years since you've had the flu—that classic seasonal illness that brings on the "I-feel-like-I've-been-hit-by-a-truck-how-can-anything-hurt-this-much?" symptoms of fever, aching muscles and extraordinary fatigue—the time is now to take action to keep you and your baby healthy.
Here's why: About one in five people—adults and children—get the seasonal flu each year. You might tough it out at home or you might find yourself one of the more than 200,000 people hospitalized each year with flu-related complications, such as dehydration, bacterial or viral pneumonia, infections of the brain and spinal cord, Reye syndrome, heart conditions or seizures (a flu-related complication for children). If you are pregnant or have a chronic health condition like congestive heart failure, asthma or other lung diseases or diabetes, you're particularly susceptible to complications associated with flu.
Then there's the simple—but scary—fact that every year about 36,000 people in the United States die from seasonal flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone age 6 months and older as the most important step in protecting against flu. The flu vaccine protects against the three or four flu viruses that research indicates will be most prevalent each year. If you're allergic to eggs, talk to your health care provider. Depending on the severity of your allergy, the flu vaccine may be given under the supervision of your health care provider. If you have a severe (life-threatening) allergy to any part of the flu vaccine, including egg protein, you should not get the shot. Always tell the person giving the shots about any severe allergies you may have or if you have ever had a severe reaction to a flu shot.
Protection Will Go a Long Way
Like most viral diseases, the flu is highly contagious. Unlike the common cold, however, there's a relatively simple, easy, safe way to protect against the flu: a vaccine.
Maybe you think you don't need a vaccine because you're young and healthy and don't work in a day-care center or nursing home. Or maybe you think you shouldn't get a vaccine because you're pregnant.
Unless you had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine in the past or currently have a fever, you should get vaccinated. Even if you're young and healthy, flu vaccination is important. According to the CDC, in years when the seasonal flu vaccine is a close match to the circulating viruses, the vaccine can be expected to reduce influenza rates by 70 percent to 90 percent in healthy adults under 65. One study found that healthy working adults receiving the seasonal flu vaccine had 43 percent fewer sick days from work. Since many companies are cutting back on sick days, that's a good benefit!
If you're pregnant (or plan to be) during flu season, you should get vaccinated. Here's a fact you might not have learned from your pregnancy planning books: If you get the flu during pregnancy, you are more likely to be sicker and to develop flu-related complications like pneumonia than if you weren't pregnant. Your risk of dying is higher if you have the flu while you're pregnant. Blame pregnancy-related changes in your respiratory and immune systems for these risks.
And, here's the kicker—if you get the flu, it could affect your baby. After major worldwide flu outbreaks like the one in 1918, infected women had higher rates of miscarriage and premature births, especially those who developed pneumonia. During the Asian influenza pandemic of 1957, it appeared that babies of women who developed the flu were more likely to have birth defects. Even during normal flu years, getting the flu during early pregnancy may increase the risk of cleft lip or palate, neural tube defects such as spina bifida (in which the spinal column doesn't completely close) and heart defects.
So, protecting yourself against the flu by getting the flu vaccine while you're pregnant provides protection for your unborn baby as well. In addition, because vaccines aren't recommended for children until they are 6 months or older, getting a flu vaccination can help your baby once he or she is born. One study found that the risk of flu in infants dropped 63 percent when the mothers were vaccinated during pregnancy, plus the risk of other respiratory illnesses in infants also dropped nearly a third.
That's why the CDC recommends flu vaccines for all pregnant women, no matter where they are in their pregnancy. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and seven other leading national maternal and infant health organizations say that getting your flu shot is an essential part of prenatal care. If flu vaccines are not offered by your obstetrics practice, they are widely available from multiple sources, such as drugstores, schools and workplaces.
Flu Vaccine Is Safe and Effective for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women
The good news is that the injectable flu vaccine, made with an inactive form of the virus, is safe for pregnant women at any time during pregnancy and is also safe for breastfeeding women. You also can consider flu vaccines that are not made with the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Plus, no matter what you've heard, you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. However, if you're pregnant, you should not get the nasal version of the vaccine that contains attenuated, or partially live, viruses. If you're breastfeeding, you may receive either a shot or the nasal form to help protect you and your baby.
OK, so what if you forgot to get vaccinated and now here it is flu season? What can you do? Get your flu vaccine! It only takes two weeks for the vaccine to rev up your immune system to better resist the virus.
Guarding Against Flu During Pregnancy in Other Ways
That's not the only thing you should, do, however. You also need to practice preventive protection. That means washing your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also are effective. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze and avoid touching your nose and mouth. Also, try to stay away from people who might be sick, and avoid crowded, close rooms if possible.
Plus, continue all the things you're already doing to ensure a healthy pregnancy—eating right, exercising moderately, sleeping adequately and managing stress. All will help strengthen your immune system so it is better prepared to fight off any viruses that do come calling.
And if you get the flu, contact your health care professional right away. It's important that he or she monitors you closely so you don't become dehydrated, your fever doesn't get too high and you don't develop complications. If you think you may have the flu, talk to your health care professional about whether you should take antiviral medications—those medications that can help minimize the effects of the flu when they are taken within 48 hours of your first symptoms.
For the latest information on flu vaccines and other related information, visit: www.flu.gov.
For families who have lost a child to flu, Families Fighting Flu provides support and resources. Click here to learn more: www.familiesfightingflu.org.