With so much focus on the Covid pandemic, it is easy to ignore another perennial virus: influenza. As cooler months approach, flu season will quickly take hold. Tens of thousands of Americans die annually because of complications from the flu.
We know that certain individuals are at higher risk of developing serious illness when they get the flu, including pregnant women and their developing babies. The physical changes that occur to a woman’s body during pregnancy make her more vulnerable to serious illness and hospitalization if she gets the flu.
Lung, heart and the immune systems change in pregnancy, and side effects of the virus can quickly escalate into severe illness. The flu can also increase your risk of preterm labor and preterm birth. Additionally, one of the most common symptoms of the flu is a fever that can impact the fetus, including neural tube defects that affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
The adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure certainly applies to pregnant women and the influenza vaccine. The CDC has studied the benefits of flu vaccines in millions of pregnant women over many years and has found it to be both safe and effective in helping pregnant women avoid the flu. A 2018 study showed that hospitalizations from serious flu symptoms was reduced by 40 percent for pregnant women who had gotten their flu vaccine. It has also been shown that a flu vaccine in pregnancy also reduces the chance of a newborn getting the flu within the first several months of life.
Flu vaccines are generally available from late August through the winter months. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends pregnant women receive the flu vaccine early in the flu season, but one can get it anytime it is available. Flu vaccines come in either an injection (shot) or a nasal spray. Pregnant women must get the injection as it contains a form of the flu virus that is inactivated. The nasal spray contains a live, attenuated influenza vaccine that is not recommended during pregnancy. However, the spray can be used after delivery and is safe to take during breast-feeding.
Both the injection and the nasal spray work like all vaccines by triggering an immune response in the body to fight against the flu when they “see” it again. It generally takes around two weeks for the body to build up an adequate defense. Some individuals can experience mild side effects from the vaccine, such a sore arm at the injection site or a low-grade fever within a day or two of getting the injection.
It is recommended that anyone over the age of six months get the flu vaccine annually as influenza viruses are constantly changing. So the added benefits of getting the vaccine during pregnancy is that the immunity is passed on to the baby and can last several months into life before the baby is able to get his or her own vaccine.
The flu vaccine has been studied for over 75 years and has been administered to millions, including pregnant women, and has been shown to be safe. A CDC study from 2012-2015 showed NO increased risk of miscarriage associated with flu vaccination in pregnancy, and an additional study published in 2017 showed no increased risk of major birth defect in infants born to women who received the flu vaccine in their 1st trimester. These studies among others pertaining to vaccinations can be found at the CDC website for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System at https://vaers.hhs.gov/about.html.
If you are pregnant and believe you have the flu, it is important to notify your healthcare provider immediately to be evaluated. If your symptoms indicate the flu, he or she can perform some lab tests to confirm a diagnosis including a rapid antigen test that can give results in a matter of minutes. If you are diagnosed with the flu, treatments can include antiviral drugs that can help prevent complications of the flu and possibly shorten the duration and hopefully avert a hospitalization.
It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to discuss the flu vaccine and how it can help you and your baby stay safe during the upcoming flu season.