How the Flu Affects Pregnant Women

In This Article
Table of Contents

Influenza is a serious, contagious respiratory illness that can lead to complications for pregnant women and their unborn children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than in women of reproductive age who are not pregnant. 

During pregnancy, a woman's body undergoes changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs. These changes make pregnant women more susceptible to more severe symptoms and complications from influenza that may require hospitalization.

Flu symptoms come on suddenly and typically include headache, fever, congestion, and body aches. If you are pregnant and suspect you may have the flu, it is important to see your doctor for testing and treatment as soon as possible.

Possible Complications

In pregnant women, influenza can be serious and may lead to complications in mother and child. In addition to possibly causing more severe symptoms in pregnant women, influenza may lead to preterm labor, premature birth, and, in severe cases, loss of pregnancy and even maternal death.

Influenza during pregnancy is also associated with birth defects. Fever, a common flu symptom, is associated with neural tube defects and other adverse outcomes for a developing baby. 

Prevention

A highly contagious respiratory illness, the influenza virus spreads through contact with infected respiratory droplets in the air or on surfaces.

The best way to avoid getting the flu is to take preventive measures, including frequent hand washing or hand sanitizer, avoiding crowded places during an influenza outbreak, staying away from people who are sick, and getting the flu vaccine.

The annual influenza vaccine has been proven safe for pregnant women and their unborn children in numerous studies. In fact, in a study of over 2 million pregnant women worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the vaccine reduced a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized from flu by an average of 40 percent. The study determined the flu shot offers equal protection throughout all three trimesters.

In addition to being critical to prenatal health, the flu shot can even provide protection from the flu for the child for up to six months after birth. This is great news since infants under 6 months old cannot get a flu shot.

The flu shot is approved in pregnant women, however, the nasal flu vaccine is not.

Treatment

Due to the increased risk of complications from influenza, the CDC recommends pregnant women who contract the flu are promptly treated with antiviral medication. Starting treatment within 48 hours of symptom onset is shown to shorten the duration of illness and reduce the severity of symptoms.

In addition to antiviral medications, pregnant women can take acetaminophen to treat symptoms. Since fever can pose a risk to the fetus, it is important to treat flu-related fevers during pregnancy.

Due to possible maternal complications, it is important to monitor your condition and contact your doctor with any questions.

Pay close attention to your respiratory system. If you experience any difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. If you aren't getting enough oxygen, the baby probably isn't either. If you think you might be wheezing or your chest feels tight, call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

When to Call 911

If you are pregnant and experience any of the following, call 911 or seek emergency medical attention immediately.

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Confusion
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Severe vomiting or vomiting that won't stop
  • High fever that does not go respond to fever-reducing medication
  • Decreased movement of the baby

A Word From Verywell

If you are pregnant and suspect you have the flu, it is important to see your doctor right away for treatment. In addition to following your doctor's instructions, be sure to get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids to stay hydrated, and take it easy until you are feeling better.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevent. Pregnant Women & Influenza (Flu).

  2. March of Dimes. Influenza (Flu) and Pregnancy.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Habits to Help Prevent Flu.

  4. Thompson MG, Kwong JC, Regan AK, et al; PREVENT Workgroup. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness in Preventing Influenza-associated Hospitalizations During Pregnancy: A Multi-country Retrospective Test Negative Design Study, 2010-2016. Clin Infect Dis. 2019;68(9):1444–1453. doi:10.1093/cid/ciy737

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendations for Obstetric Health Care Providers Related to Use of Antiviral Medications in the Treatment and Prevention of Influenza.