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Is It Safe to Get the Flu Shot During Pregnancy?

Monday, January 13th, 2014

If you are pregnant, chances are that you are questioning everything that goes into your body, and for good reason. It’s your job during pregnancy to nurture and protect your baby from a wide range of potential dangers. During the winter months, you may be wondering whether the flu vaccine is among those dangers.

It’s not. The fact is that it is completely safe for pregnant women to get the flu vaccine. In fact, getting vaccinated against the flu could make a big difference in your baby’s health; it could even be the difference between life and death. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and numerous others all strongly recommend that pregnant women get flu shots.

Getting the flu while pregnant can cause serious complications. Pneumonia is one major concern. Pneumonia is potentially life-threatening and could be a risk factor for preterm labor. In addition, there is evidence that when you get the flu shot during pregnancy, your baby may continue to benefit from this protection after birth. Also, if you avoid catching the flu yourself postpartum, then your baby is less likely to be exposed to it at all. And protecting your newborn from the flu is important, because the flu is particularly dangerous for young babies, who can’t be vaccinated themselves before they are six months old. (Therefore, not only you but other family members as well should get flu shots.)

The flu vaccine may have no side effects at all, or you may notice mild side effects such as mild pain, tenderness, or redness at the site of the shot. Some people notice muscle aches, nausea, fever, or headaches after the shot, but these generally only last a day or two. Allergic reactions are extremely rare.

Anyone considering the flu shot, including pregnant women, should tell their doctors or anyone who is administering the shot if they have severe allergies to eggs or anything else that may be present in the shot. It is important to note that pregnant women should receive the flu shot, and not the nasal spray, which contains live flu virus.

Pregnant women can get flu shots at any point in their pregnancy. Getting vaccinated as early as possible to avoid being unprotected when flu season begins is best. However, if you have avoided getting the vaccine because you were concerned about safety during pregnancy, go ahead and get one even if it is later in the season. Flu season can last well into the spring, so even women getting vaccinated later on can still benefit.

Lately there has been some concern among people getting vaccinated about thimerosal, a preservative used in some flu shots. However, the CDC has uncovered no evidence that thimerosal presents any risk whatsoever. Besides, the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh even any theoretical risk. If you are worried, though, don’t let it stop you from getting a flu shot; ask your doctor about thimerosal-free vaccine. If it isn’t available in your area, go for the regular flu shot, and don’t worry – it’s much safer than not getting one at all.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Pregnancy and Swine Flu: a Dangerous Combination

Friday, December 4th, 2009

The word from the Centers for Disease Control is that women who are pregnant are at high risk from the H1N1 virus, also known as the swine flu.

If you’re pregnant, you need to get vaccinated with both the seasonal and the H1N1 vaccines. It’s the single best way to protect yourself and your baby from the flu. And don’t let the anti-vaccination rumors swirling around the Internet scare you into delaying or avoiding a flu shot. According to the CDC, the seasonal flu vaccine has been administered to millions of women and has not been shown to harm women or their babies. The 2009 H1N1 flu shot is made in the same way and in the same places as the seasonal flu shot.  You may receive both flu shots at the same time; however, they should be given at different sites on your body, e.g., left arm and right arm.

Although recent cases of swine flu have been diminishing, influenza epidemics tend to come in waves. So even if there are few new cases of the flu in your area, it may just be a lull and you could get hit by the next wave. Get vaccinated now, if the vaccines are available in your area. Get everyone in your household vaccinated to prevent the disease from spreading among family members. Babies under 6 months of age are too young to get the vaccine so it’s especially important to their health that other members of the household are vaccinated to protect against family members spreading the virus.

Here are some other ways you can protect yourself from the germs all around us.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Or use small bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer you can carry in your purse.
  • If you have flu symptoms, call your doctor immediately. Pregnant women tend to get more serious cases of this flu and it’s important to get treatment. Your doctor can prescribe medicines that will help.
  • Don’t assume that, just because you don’t have a fever, you don’t have the flu. This flu doesn’t always cause fever.
  • Try to avoid contact with others who appear ill. If someone in your family gets sick, ask your doctor to prescribe medications that may prevent you from getting sick, too, such as Tamiflu® or Relenza®.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue away immediately. If a tissue isn’t available, sneeze into your sleeve, not your hand.
  • Keep your cabinets well stocked with non-perishable foods as well as other basics and medicine that you might need if you got sick.

The CDC warns that if you are pregnant and experience any of the following, you must call 911 immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Rapid pulse over 100 beats per minute
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • A high fever that is not responding to Tylenol®
  • Decreased or no movement of your baby

Just remember, the nasal spray vaccine is not licensed for use by pregnant women because it is a live, attenuated virus. Pregnant women should not receive nasal spray vaccine for either seasonal flu or 2009 H1N1 flu. After delivery, women can receive the nasal spray vaccine, even if they are breastfeeding.

In summary, get vaccinated, practice good hygiene, and call your doctor immediately if you get sick, and you and your baby should come through this flu season just fine.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH