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How the Flu Shot Protects You & Your Baby During Pregnancy

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Pregnant woman and husband; Can You Get the Flu Shot While Pregnant?

You’re pregnant, hurrah! Now, it’s time to take special care of your body, so your baby enters the world with the best start possible. What about getting a flu shot? Truth is, getting the flu vaccine is a great way to not only protect yourself, but to protect your developing baby, too. OB-GYN Willis Hong, UnityPoint Health, explains why a flu vaccination during pregnancy is a must.

What Happens if I get the Flu While Pregnant?

The flu can be more severe for a pregnant woman due to the changes your body is going through. Dr. Hong says your immune, cardiovascular and respiratory system are much more sensitive to the impact of the flu infection and symptoms.

“The immune system is different during pregnancy,” Dr. Hong says. “Due to the complexity, there’s no simple answer to the various ways the system adapts during pregnancy. In general, specific parts of the immune system get activated and other parts get dampened during pregnancy, with the overall goal of accepting the pregnancy/fetus, while continuing to protect the mother and the pregnancy.”

Flu shot while pregnant infographic

When is the Flu Most Dangerous to My Pregnancy?

“Influenza during the very early weeks of pregnancy can be more dangerous to the pregnancy than the mother. Although it’s very rare for the actual viral infection to be transferred to the fetus, the symptoms of influenza can cause significant dehydration, high fevers and poor nutritional intake that could elevate the risk of miscarriage and birth defects,” Dr. Hong says.

If you notice flu symptoms, including sudden onset of fever, headache, body aches and fatigue, call your doctor immediately. They can help guide you to appropriate evaluation and treatment. Dr. Hong says this could include an office visit, urgent care visit or event a trip to the emergency department. In the meantime, continue staying hydrated and treat high fevers with acetaminophen.

What if Someone Close to Me Gets the Flu?

The flu passes through respiratory droplets from sneezing and coughing. Therefore, Dr. Hong says make sure you keep your distance from anyone who might be infected. Also, make sure to wash your hands well if you touch any surfaces that might have been exposed. 

“Alternatively, if you know you’ve been exposed to someone who has the flu virus, you can talk to your provider about prescribing a dose of preventative anti-viral medication to decrease your risk of developing the illness. Anti-virals, like Tamiflu, have been studied and haven’t shown to increase the risk of adverse neonatal or maternal effects. The benefits significantly outweigh the risks of untreated influenza during pregnancy,” Dr. Hong says. 

Can I get the Flu Shot While Pregnant?

Yes, you should get the flu vaccination during pregnancy. Flu season generally runs from October through March and sometimes even longer. So, as soon as the vaccine is available, Dr. Hong says you should take advantage of it.

“The flu vaccine triggers the immune system to create antibodies against the flu virus. These antibodies circulate in the bloodstream, and if they encounter the flu virus, they will tag it to be destroyed by the immune system. It generally takes about two weeks for the body to build these protective antibodies after the flu vaccine,” Dr. Hong says.

You can get the flu shot during any trimester. The side effects are generally mild and only last a day or two. They include soreness at the site of the shot, headache, low-grade fever, nausea and fatigue. Dr. Hong says it’s very rare to experience a serious allergic reaction to the flu shot. 

How does the Flu Shot Protect My Baby?

One important reason you should get the flu shot is because it not only protects you, but it also protects your baby.

“The production of antibodies from the flu vaccine transfer across the placenta and provide the infant several months of protection after birth. This protection is key, as newborn infants have weaker immune systems and rely on maternal antibodies to protect them. Once the infant reaches the age of six months, the maternal protection is not effective, and the infant’s immune system is much stronger. Thus, they can develop their own antibodies and should receive their own flu vaccine,” Dr. Hong says.

Dr. Hong says you can also share antibodies with your baby through breast milk. So, it’s important to get the vaccine even if you get it right after your baby arrives.

What are the Risks of Getting the Flu Shot While Pregnant?

The number one concern Dr. Hong hears from his patients is that the flu shot causes autism. He says that is NOT true, and there’s an abundance of medical literature that demonstrate there is no association between the vaccine and autism.