By MotherToBaby, a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS)

Why should pregnant women care about influenza? Isn’t Zika a bigger deal?

The second you get pregnant, the advice starts coming in from everyone. No eating unpasteurized cheese (Listeria!), don’t change the cat litter (Toxoplasmosis!), and definitely don’t travel to South America (Zika!). While these are all valid concerns, influenza tends to get forgotten, and dismissed as “just the flu.” The Influenza virus may not make sensational headlines, but it’s a serious problem every year, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to this infection.

In 2009/2010, the United States (U.S.) experienced a flu pandemic. The flu hit the public hard, and many pregnant women were hospitalized. The U.S. saw higher rates of admission to intensive care units for pregnant women, and 109 pregnant women died from confirmed or suspected flu infection. In comparison, Zika virus, which received much media attention and continues to be a source of great concern for many pregnant women, rarely results in hospitalization and has not resulted in any maternal deaths.

5 Quick Flu Facts:

  1. The flu is a risk year-round, and is not limited to a particular area of the country.
  2. Changes with the immune system, heart, and lungs put pregnant women at an increased risk of developing serious complications from the flu, such as respiratory distress. Pregnant women who get the flu are also much more likely to be hospitalized, and can even die from influenza complications.
  3. Fever is a common flu symptom. Research shows that an untreated high fever early in pregnancy can result in an increased risk for a certain class of birth defects known as neural tube defects (spina bifida is one example).
  4. Being very sick from the flu can increase the risk of pregnancy complications such as miscarriage and preterm delivery.
  5. For pregnant women looking to ensure the healthiest start to life for their little one, influenza is an important infection to be aware of, and to try to prevent.

Is it too late to get a flu shot? It’s January, isn’t flu season over?

It’s never too late to get a flu shot! Flu season can start as early as October, and runs as late as May some years. However, research shows that the highest number of flu cases each year usually occurs in February. While vaccine effectiveness can vary from season to season, the flu vaccine is thought to reduce the risk of illness by about 50% to 60% when the flu viruses that end up circulating in the community closely match the viruses included in that year’s vaccine. Even during years when the flu vaccine is not a good match, it is still thought to provide some protection against the flu. If you haven’t received this year’s flu vaccine yet, talk to your health care provider as soon as possible.

10 Quick Flu Vaccine Facts:

  1. The best way to avoid getting the flu virus is to receive the flu vaccine.
  2. Women who are planning a pregnancy and women who are currently pregnant are strongly encouraged to get the seasonal flu shot as early as possible during the flu season.
  3. There is no known risk from getting the flu shot during pregnancy. The seasonal flu shot is an inactivated virus vaccine, which means that it won’t cause you to get sick with the flu.
  4. Pregnant women are asked to avoid the live attenuated flu vaccine (also called the nasal spray vaccine) as it contains a tiny amount of weakened live virus.
  5. There is no trimester during pregnancy when the flu shot has to be avoided.
  6. Studies of thousands of women who have received the flu shot just before or during pregnancy have found no increased risk for birth defects.
  7. Studies have found that when pregnant women get the flu shot, their baby is born with protection against the flu for anywhere from 2 to 6 months after birth.
  8. Most women who receive the flu shot will not experience any problems.
  9. A small number of individuals who receive the flu vaccine may experience soreness/redness/swelling at the injection site, headache, fever, nausea and/or muscle aches. Reassuringly, these symptoms are usually mild and go away on their own within a few days.
  10. Anyone with a severe, life-threatening allergy to any of the vaccine ingredients should talk with their health care provider before getting the flu vaccine.

Is there anything else I can do to avoid the flu?

In addition to getting vaccinated, healthy habits can further reduce your risk of getting the flu. Avoid close contact with other individuals who are sick. If you’re caring for someone with the flu (like a partner or a child), make sure to clean and disinfect common surfaces that may be contaminated with germs. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and practice good health habits like staying well hydrated and eating nutritious food.

If you develop symptoms of the flu, you should contact your health care provider as soon as possible. When indicated, antiviral medications may be prescribed (ideally within 48 hours) to lessen flu symptoms and reduce the risk of serious illness.

MotherToBaby is a suggested resource by many federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Women’s Health, and HRSA, and provides the most up-to-date information. More than 100,000 women and their health care providers seek information about birth defects prevention from MotherToBaby every year. Additionally, MotherToBaby conducts observational research studies in order to contribute more information to the published literature about a variety of exposures. To be connected with a MotherToBaby expert, please call (866) 626-6847, text questions to (855) 999-3525 (standard messaging rates might apply) or visit www.MotherToBaby.org.

REFERENCES:

Flu Shot Effectiveness: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm
Flu Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm
Peaks In February: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
MTB Flu Shot Fact Sheet: https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/seasonal-influenza-vaccine-flu-shot-pregnancy/
MTB Flu Fact Sheet: https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/seasonal-influenza-the-flu-pregnancy/
MTB Antiviral Fact Sheet: https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/antiviral-medications-treatprevent-influenza-the-flu-pregnancy/
Flu Shot Side Effects: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/general.htm
Flu Shot Protects Baby: https://www.cdc.gov/features/pregnancyandflu/index.html
CDC Illness/Death Stats: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/burden.htm
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