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What are the Risks of Getting the Flu When Pregnant?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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Contracting the flu when pregnant can present several health risks for both mom and baby. The expectant mother has a greater chance of experiencing more severe symptoms of the flu and she may take longer to recover. This can lead to a greater chance for complications such as dehydration and bacterial pneumonia. Women who get the flu when pregnant also have an increased risk of their baby being born with spina bifida, a birth defect that can cause paralysis and lifelong issues with the digestive system. All of these risks coupled with the restrictions on treatment for pregnant women can make getting the flu when pregnant dangerous.

When a woman is pregnant, her immune system becomes weaker as her pregnancy progresses and with extra strain being placed on her heart and lungs. If she contracts the flu when pregnant, her body may not be able to adequately fight off the virus. This can result in much more severe symptoms than usual, especially nasal congestion, which is a common side effect of pregnancy itself. The weakened immune system can also cause a pregnant woman to take much longer to recover, which leaves her more vulnerable to developing complications from the flu.

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A severe flu can cause several other issues, most commonly bacterial pneumonia and extreme dehydration. Due to the strain that pregnancy places on the immune system, heart, and lungs, a pregnant woman is much more likely to develop these health issues which can be detrimental to both her and baby. Bacterial pneumonia, one of the top ten causes of death in the U.S., is exacerbated by a pregnant woman’s weakened immune system. It can also restrict the amount of oxygen the fetus receives, which can limit development and increase the risk of miscarriage. Dehydration can limit the amount of nutrients the unborn baby receives, also affecting fetal development.

When a woman gets the flu when pregnant, especially in the first trimester, the risk of her baby being born with spina bifida also increases. The abnormally high fever that many pregnant women experience while fighting off the flu can cause this birth defect. If bacterial pneumonia is contracted during the early stages of pregnancy, the lack of oxygen to the baby can also increase the spina bifida risk.

Apart from the underlying health issues, some of the medications routinely used to treat the flu, including many decongestants and painkillers, are considered unsafe to take while pregnant. This can limit a woman’s treatment options or pose an increased risk to the baby if those treatments are necessary. The flu vaccine, however, is considered safer for pregnant women than actually getting the flu; most doctors recommended pregnant women without egg allergies receive their seasonal flu shot as soon as it becomes available.

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