Pregnancy and Flu

Pregnancy and Flu

For most healthy people, flu is an unpleasant but typically self-limiting illness that recovers within a week. However, pregnant women have been found to be at greater risk of more serious side effects of flu. If you have flu while pregnant, your baby could be born prematurely or have a low birth weight; this can lead to stillbirth or death in the first week of life.

Flu can also be serious for new-born babies, who can catch the infection from their mothers. 

Symptoms of Flu

Flu symptoms include fever (not always present), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhoea (this is most common in young children).

Covid and Flu – why the concern?

Research shows that viral infections such as flu and COVID-19 can be more severe in pregnant women as the mother’s immune system compromises itself to preserve the health of her baby.

Covid-19 is known to attack the lungs and cardiovascular system, which are already under added strain during pregnancy.  Contracting flu or Covid-19 during pregnancy can result in serious health complications such as pneumonia which in turn can prompt premature labour, miscarriage and other health issues.

The biggest single act that you can do to prevent yourself from getting influenza is to get the vaccine. 

Complications of Flu

A common complication of flu is bronchitis, a chest infection that can become serious and develop into pneumonia. Other less common complications of flu include:

  • middle ear infection (otitis media)
  • sepsis
  • inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)

Why are pregnant women at higher risk?

During pregnancy, a woman’s body naturally weakens the immune system to ensure the pregnancy is successful. Therefore, pregnant women are at higher risk of complications from flu. The best way to avoid getting flu is by getting vaccinated; having the flu jab will protect both mum and baby.

Dr Patrick O’Brien, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) emphasizes that any viral infection, including seasonal flu, can cause harm to a mother and baby during pregnancy; and can also be serious for new-born babies if they catch the infection from their mothers. Read  more here. 

How does the flu vaccine work?

 The flu vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to make antibodies (proteins that recognise and fight off germs, such as viruses, that have invaded your blood) to attack the flu virus. If you are exposed to the flu virus after you have had the flu vaccine, your immune system will recognise the virus and immediately produce antibodies to fight it. It may take 10 to 14 days for your immunity to build up fully after you have had the flu vaccine.

 Is the flu vaccine safe in pregnancy?

Yes, studies show that it is safe to have the flu vaccine during any stage of pregnancy, from the first few weeks up to your expected due date. It does not cause miscarriages, autism or anything untoward to happen to your pregnancy or to your baby. Women who have had the flu vaccine while pregnant also pass some protection on to their babies, which lasts for the first few months of their lives. The flu vaccine is also safe for women who are breastfeeding.

When should I have the flu jab?

The best time to have a flu vaccine is before flu starts circulating. If you miss it for any reason, you can still have the flu vaccine later in the winter. If you find that you are pregnant later in the flu season, you can have the vaccine then if you have not already had it.

How do I get the flu vaccine?

It is recommended that you get vaccinated as soon as possible after the vaccine becomes available. In Gibraltar, pregnant women are offered the flu vaccine at their first antenatal visit with the community midwife. However, there is the option to have the vaccine at a later date in the pregnancy if it is missed.

If I had the flu jab last year, do I need to have it again now?

Yes, the viruses that cause flu change every year; this means the flu (and the vaccine) this year may be different from last year. You need to have a flu vaccination every year as the antibodies that protect you from flu decline over time, and flu strains can also change from year to year.

 Will the flu jab give me flu?

No. The vaccine does not contain any live viruses, so it cannot cause flu. Some people may get a slightly raised temperature, soreness at the injection site and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards.

 Can I have the flu jab at the same time as the whooping cough vaccine?

Yes, you can have the flu jab at the same time as the whooping cough vaccine, but do not delay your flu jab so you can have both at the same time. Pregnant women are at risk of severe illness from flu at any stage of pregnancy, so it is important to have the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available and is offered to you.

I’m pregnant and think I have flu. What should I do?

If you think you have the flu, inform your GP as soon as possible. If you do have flu, there is a prescribed medicine you can take that might help, or reduce your risk of complications, but it needs to be taken very soon after symptoms appear.

Preventing flu

To reduce your risk of getting flu or spreading it to other people, you should always:

  • make sure you wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water
  • clean surfaces such as your keyboard, telephone and door handles regularly to get rid of germs
  • use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
  • put used tissues in a bin as soon as possible
  • avoiding people who are sick

Breastfeeding also has many benefits, including helping to protect infants from infections like flu.

Common misconceptions about flu in pregnancy

Myth #1: Having the vaccine will harm my baby

The flu vaccine has a good safety record and has no associated risk of complications for either the mother or baby. Research has shown that pregnant women have a higher chance of developing complications if they get flu.

Myth #2: I’m too early/late in my pregnancy to get the vaccine

Studies have shown that the flu vaccine is safe during any stage of pregnancy, from the first few weeks up to your expected due date. The best time to have a flu vaccine is from the beginning of October to November, but if you miss it, you can have the vaccine at any time during the flu season.

Myth #3: Flu is not that serious, I will just deal with it

Flu is a highly infectious disease that spreads through coughs and sneezes of people who are carrying the virus. The symptoms, which come on quickly, include fever, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, and extreme tiredness. It is important t note that flu is not like having a bad cold; can be much worse. Pregnant women are at a higher risk of complications from flu, such as pneumonia. In very rare cases, getting flu during pregnancy can also lead to an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth or having a low weight baby.

Myth #4: The flu vaccine does not work, so why bother?

Flu vaccination is the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk groups, including pregnant women.

Myth #5: The flu vaccine will give me flu

The flu vaccine contains inactivated, or killed, strains of the flu virus and it cannot give you flu. Flu vaccines given by injection with a needle (flu shots) are made with either inactivated (killed) viruses, or with only a single protein from the flu virus.  The nasal spray vaccine contains live viruses that are attenuated (weakened) so that they will not cause illness.

Myth #6: I had the flu vaccine last year, I don’t need it again

The viruses that cause flu change every year; therefore the vaccines are different from year to year. Even if you had the flu vaccine last year, if you are pregnant, you need to have it again this year.

For more information on Influenza (Flu), visit: https://healthygibraltar.org/common-infections/influenza/