pregnant woman flu looking tired

Women have a higher risk of catching flu in pregnancy. Here we discuss the flu vaccine and the potential impact of getting flu when you're pregnant.

What is flu and why is it more serious in pregnancy?

If you’ve had a bad cold before, you might have thought you had the flu. But if you actually have the flu, you’ll probably feel very ill indeed.

With flu, you’re likely to have a fever and chills, as well as aches and pains. Other symptoms include headaches and feeling completely exhausted. In fact, you’ll probably feel you just want to rest. Flu is very infectious and easy to catch.

Flu is more serious if you’re pregnant than if you’re not, and you might even need admission to hospital. That’s because your immune system is weakened to help your pregnancy so you’re less able to fight off infections. If you have diabetes or some other conditions, this can also increase your chance of getting flu (NHS and Public Health England, 2018).

How can I tell if I have flu?

Flu symptoms can come on suddenly. You’ll know if you have flu rather than just a bad cold if you experience some of the following:

  • A high temperature of 38⁰C or more, which can come on quickly.
  • Feeling feverish or having chills.
  • Aches and pains in your joints and muscles.
  • Extreme tiredness, although you might have trouble sleeping.
  • Headache, chesty cough and/or sore throat.
  • You might not feel hungry, or you might feel and be sick.
  • Stomach pain or an upset stomach.

(NHS, 2017a)

Flu complications

Flu caught during pregnancy can be harmful not only to pregnant mothers but also to their unborn baby. Problems related to flu during pregnancy include your baby being born too early, or being a low birth weight. In serious cases, it can even lead to stillbirth. Flu can be fatal for newborn babies.

Expectant mums who get flu are at risk of getting serious complications, such as bronchitis, which can then develop into pneumonia. You might also be more susceptible to ear and blood infections, which can lead to septic shock, as well as meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) (NHS, 2017b).

Flu jab or vaccine

Vaccination is the most effective way to protect you and your baby from getting flu, even if you feel fit and healthy (NHS, 2017a). If you’re pregnant, you don’t have to pay to be vaccinated, and it’s safe anytime during pregnancy. You’ll have a jab in your arm, which takes about two weeks to provide protection from flu.

Your baby will benefit too, as antibodies passed through the placenta will provide them with some immunity to flu (NHS Public Health England, 2018). Pregnant women can have the flu vaccine from September until January or February each year.

The NHS strongly advises pregnant women at any stage of their pregnancy to have the vaccine. Talk to your GP, midwife or practice nurse for more information.

Does the flu vaccine have any side effects?

Yes, there could be some mild side effects of the flu vaccine, which might last for one or two days. It’s important to remember though that getting flu itself would be far worse.

It might feel a bit sore where the injection went in, and you may have slight flu-like symptoms like a headache, muscle aches, fever or tiredness. But as the vaccine is inactive, it can’t actually give you flu (NHS Public Health England, 2018).

Treating flu at home

If you get flu, try to get lots of rest and sleep, and keep warm. You can take paracetemol to get your temperature down and reduce discomfort. It’s a good idea to drink lots of water too so that you stay hydrated (NHS, 2017a).

How can I avoid getting flu or spreading it?

Flu can be spread quickly to other people when someone with flu coughs or sneezes. These germs can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours. There are certain measures you can take to avoid getting flu or spreading it to other people.

Use tissues over your mouth when you sneeze, then wash your hands with soap and warm water and throw the tissue away. Make sure surfaces that you use regularly, like keyboards and door handles, are kept clean and germ-free (NHS, 2017).

Can I continue to breastfeed if I have flu?

The only clear answer to this is that breast milk is still good for your baby – and you can either express your milk or directly breastfeed them. Some guidelines encourage mothers to express their milk to maintain their milk supply; the suggestion is that someone else who’s healthy cares for the baby to minimise risks of transmission (CDC, 2018). Yet other advice suggests mothers with flu or any other contagious diseases can continue to breastfeed; this is because of the potential trauma of separation and the likelihood babies have already been exposed (IBC, 2017).

This page was last reviewed in February 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

There is information about flu on the NHS choices website, including a section H1N1 flu in pregnancy.

CDC (The Centers for Disease control). (2018) Influenza (flu): guidance for the prevention and control of influenza in the peri and postpartum settings. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/infectioncontrol/peri-post-settings.htm [Accessed 1st February 2018].

IBC (International Breastfeeding Centre). (2017) Breastfeeding and maternal illness part 1. Available at: https://ibconline.ca/maternal-illness1/ [Accessed 1st February 2018].

NHS, Public Health England. (2018) Pregnant? – Vaccinations before, during and after your pregnancy. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/674438/PHE_Pregnancy_2018_DL_16pp_leaflet_.pdf [Accessed 1st February 2018].

NHS. (2017a) Flu. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/flu/ [Accessed 1st February 2018].

NHS. (2017b) Why are pregnant women at higher risk of flu complications? Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/3096.aspx?CategoryID=5 [Accessed 1st February 2018].

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