Preventing the flu in pregnancy

In Queensland’s cooler months, colds and influenza (the flu) are common. The flu can result in complications for a pregnant women and her unborn child, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms, how to prevent it, and what to do in the event you do get the flu.

 

Cold vs flu

It is important to know the difference between a cold and the flu as the two are often confused!

Both the common cold and influenza are viral infections spread through coughing, sneezing or touching contaminated surfaces or objects. The infection spreads via droplets – where infected particles of mucous or saliva transmit the virus.

Symptoms of the common cold are generally feeling unwell, headaches & a runny/stuffy nose which cause sneezing, and a little coughing caused by the irritation of a mildly sore/dry throat.

Symptoms of influenza often include high temperatures and fevers (over 38 degrees), muscle aches, chills, headache, lethargy, coughing and sneezing. Unlike the common cold, recovery from the flu usually requires days of bed rest. If you are unsure of your symptoms, your GP can take a swab from your nose in order to get a diagnosis.

 

Pregnancy Complications

In the general population, complications of the flu can include bronchitis, pneumonia or heart problems and can even be fatal. For pregnant women though, there is a higher risk of contracting the flu and of complications because your immune system is working in over-drive to support and protect your pregnancy, as well as the extra workload on your heart and lung function.

If you are pregnant and you have flu symptoms, it is important you speak to your GP or maternity health provider as soon as possible. Your GP may recommend you start anti-viral medicines within 48 hours of symptoms presenting, so it is best that a diagnosis is made early.

It is also important that you and your unborn baby have appropriate medical attention when you have the flu.  To reduce your fever, it is safe to take paracetamol in pregnancy – but important to only take the recommended dose and frequency as listed. Ensure that you rest, keep warm, breathe in clean air and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

Before presenting to your GP, especially now with COVID 19 mimicking many of the symptoms of flu, call ahead, just in case there is anything they would like you to do before coming in to prevent the risk to other patients or staff.

 

How do I prevent the flu?

Even when pregnant, the best prevention is to have the flu vaccination.  Having the flu vaccination during pregnancy is safe, and it protects both you and your baby. Babies are unable to have a flu vaccine until they are six months of age. Your baby has an increased likelihood of requiring hospitalisation if he/she contracts the flu in the first few months of life. Therefore, any protection they can get prior to being born is beneficial. You having the vaccine whilst pregnant provides antibodies and protection for your newborn.

The flu vaccine is offered free to pregnant women in Queensland.

 

Along with getting the flu vaccination, recommendations include:

  • Good hand hygiene practices. Correct hand washing helps protect yourself and others from contracting the flu. Be particularly vigilant if you have been in public or in contact with anyone with respiratory symptoms.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with the flu if possible.
  • Avoid large crowds and events during flu season if possible.
  • Eat a healthy diet to support your immune system to work well.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth unless you’ve just washed your hands.
  • Carry antibacterial gel or wipes with you for when you are not near water and soap.
  • Encourage close family and friends to be vaccinated for the herd immunity.

 

Can my unborn baby catch the flu if I have it?

The chance of a mother passing the flu to her unborn child in pregnancy is very low, however there is a very small increase in the risk of complications (dependent on gestation) as a result of the mother having the flu such as miscarriage, stillbirth and preterm birth.  The unborn baby could experience adverse effects if a mother’s viral illness is particularly serious with severe respiratory problems or fevers.

As mentioned, it is best to see a GP as soon as symptoms of influenza present to get treatment started straight away and so yours and your baby’s health can be closely monitored.

 

Can I get the flu again after I’ve had it?

Yes. The flu virus changes its surface structure every year making it hard for the body to recognize it as the flu you had previously. This is the reason for the seasonal flu vaccine changing each year.

 

Sources and further reading about influenza can be found here: