Pregnant women are at high risk of complications from the flu. Yet only about 50% get a flu shot each year.
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“We recommend that pregnant women get their flu shot as soon it’s available, whether they are in their first, second or third trimester,” says Ob/Gyn Beri Ridgeway, MD.
Are flu shots risky for pregnant women?
Flu vaccines are not dangerous for pregnant women. Many large scientific studies not only support their safety in pregnancy; they also show better outcomes for mom and baby, including a lower risk of stillbirth.
Yet false reports about vaccine dangers once spread like wildfire. “The fears of vaccines causing miscarriage or autism were based on a few studies that were later declared fraudulent and recalled,” says Dr. Ridgeway.
The flu vaccine given during pregnancy does not use live virus, making it even safer than regular flu vaccine. And if you’re concerned about thimerosal, a preservative used in the flu vaccine, a thimerosal-free vaccine is available.
Fears about the flu shot giving you flu are also unfounded, she says. Sometimes, though, your body has a short-lived immune response to the vaccine.
“Whatever happens in that short time is far preferable to getting full-blown flu in any trimester of pregnancy,” she stresses.
What are the risks of not getting a flu shot?
The risks of getting the flu itself are real for mom and baby.
Dr. Ridgeway explains that pregnancy brings changes to a woman’s respiratory system, heart, fluid volume and immune system. These make a women much more likely to become severely ill — or to die —from the flu.
Pregnant women with flu can wind up with respiratory distress. “It’s a horrid situation,” she says. “I’ve seen pregnant women with flu who were put on life support and lost their babies in the ICU.”
How does vaccination help mom and baby?
Research shows that women who get vaccinated and avoid the flu have healthier pregnancies, says Dr. Ridgeway.
“The babies of mothers who get the flu vaccine are less likely to have birth defects or other problems for which the flu increases their risk,” she says.
Another big plus: The flu vaccine gives the baby immune protection not only in the uterus, but also for the first six months after birth.
“This is important because babies can’t be vaccinated until they are 6 months old; their immune systems are not developed enough,” explains Dr. Ridgeway.
“The flu vaccine helps a mom protect her baby during and after pregnancy, because she is less likely to get the flu when the baby is tiny.”
What if you’re pregnant and exposed to the flu?
If you’re pregnant — whether you’ve had a flu shot or not — seek care right away if you develop any of these signs of flu:
- Sudden onset.
“Call your obstetrician or primary doctor, or go to urgent care,” says Dr. Ridgeway. “We are very liberal in treating pregnant women with antiviral medication at the first sign of flu.
“If the provider doesn’t offer, or hesitates to give you, an antiviral, be persistent — call your Ob.”
She stresses that other family members should also get flu shots, and recommends that pregnant women avoid contact with those who are ill and wash their hands frequently.
So don’t hesitate to get a flu shot if you’re pregnant — as early as possible.
“The myths you’ve heard about vaccines have put those at greatest risk of getting flu — including pregnant women — at huge jeopardy. They rely on others to get vaccinated so there will be less influenza overall,” says Dr. Ridgeway.
“We call this ‘herd immunity’ — vaccinating the herd so the most vulnerable are not even exposed to the illness.”