This month for our Ask the Experts series, we’re gathering info on prenatal health. Today, Dr. Richard Beigi, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), explains why influenza vaccination is important for pregnant women. A recent survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) found lack of awareness and mistaken beliefs that still prevent people from getting vaccinated. Dr. Beigi answers some common questions and addresses frequent concerns about influenza and vaccination for pregnant women.
This is the time of year when you will hear coughs and sniffles around you, whether at the mall, in the doctor’s waiting room, or in your own home. We all try to avoid the germs. After all, no one wants to get a cold or even worse, the flu. The flu, that nasty infection caused by the influenza virus, can be dangerous for anyone, but pregnant women need to be especially careful. Influenza has taken a huge toll on pregnant women in recent years, resulting in many hospitalizations and even death in some cases. Pregnant women are at risk for influenza during outbreaks every year, which is why annual vaccination should be part of your healthcare routine.
Vaccination is the most effective way for anyone to avoid the flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend annual influenza vaccination for all pregnant women and their families. Last season, almost half of pregnant women in the US were vaccinated, so that’s good news, but we can do better.
Q. What preventive measures should I take during flu season?
A. Flu vaccination is the best way for you to protect yourself. A pregnant woman should receive the inactivated (killed virus), injectable influenza vaccine to protect herself, her developing fetus, and eventually her baby during the first six months of its life. Studies have shown that mothers who get the flu vaccine during pregnancy pass some of their immunity to their unborn baby, which provides them with some protection after they are born. Good hygiene habits like hand washing are also helpful, but since the flu is mainly an airborne virus and is spread by people even before they have symptoms, vaccination is the first preventive measure I recommend for my patients.
Q. Should everyone in my household get the flu vaccine?
A. Yes. It’s also a good idea for everyone in the household to get vaccinated to increase protection around the newborn during the vulnerable first months of life. The CDC recommends everyone six months and older should get a flu vaccine. There is no better way to begin your newborn’s life than to make sure you and the entire family are not able to pass on viruses like influenza to your newborn.
Q. Are there any risks for my newborn by getting the flu vaccine?
A. No, millions of pregnant women have safely received the flu vaccine for many years. Each year’s influenza vaccine meets rigorous safety standards, and is closely monitored with long-established systems. You cannot get the flu from the influenza vaccine. Vaccination helps control influenza epidemics that were devastating to previous generations.
Q. When should I get vaccinated?
A. Seasonal flu is unpredictable, and usually circulates during the fall and winter and into early spring (October through May) each year in the United States. It’s impossible to tell exactly when activity will begin in a given area, so that’s why it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as it is available in your community.
If you’re planning to be pregnant during influenza season, talk to your physician about getting the influenza vaccine before conceiving. If you get pregnant before being vaccinated, no need to worry, you can safely get the flu vaccine at any point during your pregnancy.
Q. What can I do if I get the flu before I can get vaccinated?
A. Know the symptoms, which can range from mild to severe and include fever, cough, sore throat, body and muscle aches, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, and nausea and vomiting. If you get sick with flu-like symptoms it’s important to call your doctor right away. If needed, the doctor will prescribe an antiviral medicine that treats the flu and is safe for you and your baby. If you get a fever or other infection early in your pregnancy you risk serious problems for your unborn baby, including premature labor and delivery. It is critical to contact your doctor at the onset of symptoms, especially if you’re experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, or severe vomiting.
Q: Where can I find more information about the flu and flu vaccine?
A. There are many helpful resources where you can find updated information about influenza. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases has information specifically for pregnant women and their families on PreventChildhoodInfluenza.org, which include the 10 reasons to get vaccinated, and information about who should be vaccinated. The CDC is always updating their website cdc.gov/flu with news throughout the flu season. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ website ImmunizationForWomen.org provides information for pregnant women about seasonal influenza and other vaccine-preventable diseases affecting pregnant women.