If you’re pregnant or might become pregnant during flu season, roll up your sleeve. A flu shot is an important element of your prenatal care, just like popping prenatal vitamins and getting regular checkups, doctors say.
“It’s not only recommended, it's highly recommended,” says Sandra Kemmerly, MD, an infectious disease specialist and system medical director at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans. The risk of skipping the flu shot and coming down with the flu while you’re pregnant “far outweighs any downside” to getting a flu vaccine, she says.
When you’re expecting, your immune system is in a state of flux. You’re immunosuppressed, Dr. Kemmerly says. In other words: Your pregnant body is much more vulnerable to contracting the flu during flu season if you’re not vaccinated, and your illness could be much more severe.
When you’re pregnant, the flu can result in hospitalization from serious complications, such as pneumonia and asthma attacks, or even death, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are serious risks to the woman’s unborn baby, too. Fever from the flu can lead to preterm labor, premature birth, and birth defects, according to March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that focuses on reducing premature births in the United States.
More than 80 percent of pregnancies overlap flu season—a period that usually begins in October and can last as late as May. Yet, the CDC points out, during recent flu seasons in the U.S., only about half of pregnant women reported getting a flu shot.
Is the flu shot safe during pregnancy?
Multiple studies show the flu shot is safe and effective during pregnancy, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which encourages flu vaccination.
A study coauthored by researchers at the CDC examined data from six flu seasons. On average, the flu shot reduced a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized due to the flu by 40 percent. What’s more, it lowered the risk of being sick with the flu during delivery.
So not only is the flu shot safe, there are direct benefits to the unborn child. If mom gets a flu shot during pregnancy, some of the antibodies her immune system makes to fend off the flu will cross the placenta, says Claudia Vicetti, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with UnityPoint Health in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That’s a good thing because a flu shot is not approved for children 6 months of age or younger, but a small amount of antibodies could protect a newborn from the flu in the first months of life.
There was concern a few years ago, when a 2015 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Vaccine raised a possible association between women who were vaccinated early during pregnancy and who had a flu shot containing the H1N1 antigen in the year prior with an increased risk of miscarriage. Just this year, researcher's presented the CDC's Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) with a follow-up study that found "NO increased risk for spontaneous abortion [miscarriage] after influenza vaccination during pregnancy." The CDC also notes that the 2015 study "had several notable limitations, including a small sample size that could have led to imprecise results." More info on this can be found here. Larger studies are needed, and at this point, experts still see more upside to flu vaccination than cause for concern.
Here are a few other facts you need to know about getting the flu shot while pregnant:
When should pregnant women get a flu shot?
The shot can be administered during any trimester. Flu season generally starts in October, so the earlier the better.
Where should pregnant women get the flu shot?
Pregnant women are given top priority for the flu shot, so if you head to your local pharmacy or clinic, you’ll likely be placed at the top of the list, especially if the vaccine is in short supply. Your OB-GYN’s office may also offer the vaccine to patients, if you feel more comfortable going to a doctor you’re more familiar with.
Can pregnant women get the nasal flu vaccine?
No. The live attenuated influenza vaccine, also known as a nasal flu vaccine, is not approved for pregnant women.
How will you feel after getting a flu shot?
The side effects of the flu shot are the same for pregnant women as they are for other people. You might have some soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, headaches, fever, or other flu-like symptoms that last one to two days.
The bottom line: Unless you have had severe allergic reactions to the flu shot in the past (in which case, you should talk to your doctor), getting vaccinated during pregnancy is highly recommended by doctors and is critical for both the health of the mother and the baby.
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