According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), peak influenza (flu) season occurs in the fall and winter. Despite there being an annual vaccine, many Americans will likely still be hospitalized from complications of the flu—which is frightening enough, but if you’re pregnant, there are two (or more) lives at risk. So, what should you do?
“Pregnant women should definitely get the flu shot,” said Jesse Parr, MD, pediatric clerkship director for the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Getting the flu shot will directly help the mother and indirectly help the baby.”
A pregnant mother’s immune system
During pregnancy, a mother’s immune system is compromised, which means she is more likely to contract illnesses and those illnesses can come on stronger. In fact, a 2015 study showed that pregnant women are more often hospitalized and admitted to intensive care because of the flu compared to the general population.
“The flu can be a very serious illness and have very severe complications,” Parr said. “If a mother gets complications of the flu, then that can lead to health risks for the baby as well.”
Getting the flu shot while pregnant
“The current vaccine can’t be given before the infant is 6 months of age,” Parr said. “The only ways to protect the baby are to create herd immunity for the baby and through the immune system of the mother.”
Herd immunity, or community immunity, exists when a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infection, making it unlikely for the pathogen to spread.
According to the CDC, if you get vaccinated during pregnancy, your baby will be born with some of the flu antibodies that will help protect them from the flu for several months until they are able to get the shot themselves at 6 months old. If your child turns 6 months old during the winter, it will still be beneficial for them to get their flu shot because flu season can last until springtime.
Recently, there was a study that hinted at pregnant women having miscarriages after getting a flu vaccine during their first trimester, a finding that was publicized widely and scared a number of people. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement reaffirming the importance of getting the flu vaccine while pregnant.
“If anything, it may be more important for a pregnant woman to get a flu shot,” Parr said. “You’re doing it for the safety of the mother and the child.”
Keeping the flu out of your home
If you’re a new mom, your child’s safety is paramount, and in between the constant napping and fussing (and the same with the baby), there will be people checking in. It’s important that anyone who comes into the house often is someone who won’t pass the flu along to the household.
“Any immediate family should get the flu shot to protect the baby,” Parr said. “Also, if you have visitors such as aunts and uncles or grandparents, they should get vaccinated to lessen the risk for the baby.”
Apart from practicing good hand hygiene, it’s important to keep your house disinfected.
“Most infectious diseases are transmitted from touching surfaces, like door knobs and tables,” Parr said. “Keep surfaces clean and cover your coughs with your elbow or a tissue and keep alcohol-based hand sanitizer nearby.”
Parr also stressed the importance of keeping your illness contained and not trying to “tough out” your condition. “Don’t go to work when you’re sick,” Parr said. “Just because you take a fever reducer that brings your temperature to normal doesn’t mean you’re not sick.”
Get the shot
We all have a bunch of reasons why we don’t want to get a flu shot: it’s time consuming, it’s a needle, you think you never get sick, it’s a needle (I really don’t like needles), but the flu isn’t just your average illness, and it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
“The flu is not a pleasant illness,” Parr said. “For some people, it may take getting it once to make sure that they never miss a flu shot, but hopefully it doesn’t have to come to that.”
Parr also addressed the common misconceptions about the flu and called them just that—misconceptions.
“The flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, and there are strains of the flu that aren’t covered by the vaccine,” Parr said. “However, the chances and duration of the illness are lessened by the vaccine and it’s better to get the shot than to try and treat the flu afterward.”
The flu vaccine lasts all season (October through March), so Parr recommended getting the vaccine as soon as it’s readily available. Also, the only vaccination available is through an injection, as the inhaled and nasal spray haven’t been as effective, so be sure to be cognizant of that when you walk in for your shot (and maybe ask for a lollipop after).
This story by Dominic Hernandez originally appeared in Vital Record.
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