When you’re pregnant, it’s really a whole new world. Gone are the days when you’re only thinking of yourself, because now you’re constantly thinking of the tiny life growing inside of you, too…and how nearly every little thing you do can or might affect it, like common medications or vaccinations, for instance. For example, is it safe to get a flu shot while pregnant?
Most pregnant women will do anything it takes to maintain a healthy pregnancy, including eating a well-rounded diet, following a pregnancy-safe exercise regimen, and resting as much as possible. When you’re sick, it’s not as easy to recover as it was before you were pregnant, and you’ll have to carefully research any medications and treatments you might need as well. Suddenly, you’re second guessing everything. And now that we’re in the throes of flu season, nearly everyone is encouraged to get a flu shot. But what about you? How might it affect the baby? And most important—is it safe?
The experts say yes, not only because it is safe for mother and baby—it’s beneficial.
Simply put, “the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that all adults including women who are or will be pregnant during influenza (flu) season receive an annual influence vaccine,” says Dr. Jennifer Aquino, obstetrician at NYU Langone Health in New York City. Dr. Aquino recommends that pregnant women, or women who are actively trying to become pregnant, should receive a flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available (which depends on your region based on production and shipment, usually anywhere from August through November).
To understand why the flu vaccine is highly recommended for pregnant mothers, we have to understand the difference between active and passive immunity. Active immunity is when a person becomes immune to a specific disease through either contracting the disease—think measles or chickenpox—or through a vaccination. Either way, the person has directly come in contact with the disease, and their immune system has produced antibodies to fight it off and create immunity from it.
Passive immunity is when a person is given someone else’s antibodies and disease-fighting white blood cells. When a pregnant mother receives a vaccine and her body creates antibodies to fight the disease, those antibodies are passed down to the baby through the placenta, thus making the baby gain some immunity as well.
It’s also extra important for the mother to receive the vaccine because, as Dr. Aquino says, “[pregnant women] are at risk for more severe complications from the flu than non-pregnant individuals.” That’s because when a woman is pregnant, her body has a harder time fighting infections. Among those complications that can arise are severe breathing problems and respiratory distress.
It’s important to note, however, that if you’re pregnant and you get the flu, there is no direct increased risk of miscarriage or birth defects. (Mother to Baby—a service dedicated to providing evidence-based information to mothers, health care professionals, and the general public about medications and other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding—notes that a high fever has been associated with increased risks of miscarriage or birth defects, so they should be treated right away with acetaminophen).
If a pregnant woman gets the flu, or is even exposed to someone with the flu, Dr. Aquino says they should be prescribed an antiviral medication, like Tamiflu. Medications should be taken as soon as possible as they stand a better chance of lessening the symptoms if taken early in the course of the illness, according to MotherToBaby.
But the best way to treat the flu is to avoid getting it in the first place.
Pregnant women should know that just because they’re carrying another life, the flu vaccine is totally safe, recommended, and is indeed beneficial to their little one’s health. The real danger comes in not getting vaccinated.
While numbers for adults are not known, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 200 children died from the flu during the 2017–18 flu season, eclipsing the previous high for flu-related pediatric deaths which occurred in 2012–13. Of the fatalities, 80 percent did not receive the flu vaccine that season.
As Dr. Aquino says, getting the flu vaccine isn’t just a good individual decision for ourselves and our babies. It’s a good societal decision too. She says, “We should all play our part and get vaccinated to protect each other from the influenza virus.”