pregnant woman taking her temperature with a thermometer

How to Handle Cold and Flu Season When You’re Pregnant

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
December 13, 2023

When you’re pregnant, your body goes through many changes to support your developing baby. Some of the more well-known effects include breast changes, morning sickness, fatigue, and swelling. Pregnancy can also disrupt your immune system, which helps protect you from infection.

“Pregnancy is a period of weakened immune state,” says Ellie Ragsdale, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at University Hospitals in Beachwood, Ohio.

A potential result? “Pregnant women tend to get much sicker, particularly from respiratory infections like the common cold, the flu, and COVID,” she says.

For some people, this might mean harsher symptoms or taking longer to recover from being sick. Pregnant people with certain risk factors may be more likely to develop severe illness if they get sick, says Zacharo Moditi, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at Tufts Medical Center, in Boston. Those risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, obesity, or asthma.

The good news: There’s plenty you can do to help keep you and your growing baby healthy this cold and flu season. And if you do get sick, there are ways to relieve your symptoms that are safe for pregnancy. Here’s what you should know.

Ways to Avoid Getting Sick

When it comes to staying healthy while pregnant, prevention is key, Ragsdale says. Try these tips:

Get Your Recommended Vaccinations

You can get pregnancy-safe vaccinations for the flu, COVID-19, and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which is another respiratory illness. RSV can have a serious impact on newborn babies, so it’s a good idea to get the vaccination toward the end of pregnancy.

These vaccines can not only help you stay healthy during pregnancy but also offer protection to your newborn.

The antibodies your body makes in response to a vaccine can pass on to your fetus, Moditi says. “Then, the newborn is protected for the first several months of life from getting sick from those respiratory illnesses, as well.”

Wear a Mask in Crowded Spaces

“Consider wearing a mask if you’re going to a very crowded area around a lot of people,” Ragsdale says. Choose a well-fitting face mask that covers both your mouth and nose to help prevent exposure to germs.

Avoid Others Who Are Sick

If you know someone who is sick, try to stay away from them. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done, especially if you’re parenting a sick child.

If you can, try to find a solution. Moditi offers this suggestion: “If there’s another child in the house who’s sick, perhaps another responsible adult who’s not pregnant or elderly can be the one who’s assigned to take care of that child.”

Disinfect Regularly

Clean high-touch surfaces in the home regularly with disinfectant, especially if other people are sick. This can help keep illness from spreading.

Wash Your Hands Often

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water to help prevent germs from spreading and getting into your eyes, nose, or mouth. When you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Keep Healthy Habits

“Also, a general focus on wellness during pregnancy—good diet, exercise, taking your vitamins, and just staying healthy in general—should help strengthen your immune system and help fight these kinds of viruses better,” Moditi says.

What to Do If You Get Sick

If you do get sick, do your best to stay home and rest. Try to avoid other people in your home to help prevent them from getting sick as well. Be sure to cover your coughs and sneezes, and dispose of used tissues to prevent germs from spreading.

Call Your Doctor

It’s a good idea to check in with or visit your healthcare provider. They can test you to diagnose or rule out illnesses like the flu or COVID-19—both of which can be treated with medication.

“We recommend Paxlovid for COVID infections in pregnancy, and Tamiflu for the flu, which tend to shorten symptom duration, help you feel better more quickly, and prevent severe illness,” Ragsdale says.

Watch Out for Certain Symptoms

Common symptoms of respiratory infections like the cold, flu, and COVID-19 include:

  • Coughing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches or muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Fever

“If there’s a high fever [100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher], it should be treated and brought down for the wellness of the mom and the baby,” Moditi says. You can try bringing down a fever by taking a lukewarm bath and by taking acetaminophen (Tylenol). If these don’t work, contact your healthcare provider.

Tell your provider if you have worrisome changes to your breathing (like breathing faster than usual or struggling to breathe) to make sure you’re getting enough oxygen for you and the baby, Moditi says.

Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Medication

Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter (OTC) medications that are safe to use during pregnancy. There are some that may help you get a good night’s sleep or that can alleviate symptoms like headaches, body aches, and congestion.

Not all OTC options are safe for everyone during pregnancy. Your doctor may recommend a nasal spray, specific decongestant, or allergy medication based on your health history and which trimester you’re in.

“A lot of pregnant women suffer unnecessarily because they are afraid to take anything,” Moditi says, adding that there’s almost always a safe option.

Try Pregnancy-Safe Home Remedies

You can also turn to home remedies to help you find relief from respiratory symptoms, such as:

  • Neti pot for congestion
  • Humidifier for congestion
  • Steam from a hot shower for congestion
  • Additional pillows under your head while sleeping to help drain nasal passages
  • Tea with honey and/or lemon for a sore throat
  • Salt water gargle for a sore throat
  • Ginger or mint tea to soothe nausea

Be very cautious about using herbal medications, which aren’t regulated. Same for essential oils, which may provide temporary relief but may actually make symptoms worse in the long term, Moditi says. Talk to your provider before taking those, too.

Bottom Line: You’ll Get Through It

Most pregnant people will go through a cold, the flu, or COVID-19 without any issues, says Moditi. “Many may not have any symptoms at all.”

It’s important to be aware of your increased risk of severe illness so you can take good care of yourself. Prevention and self-care can help protect you and your developing baby.

And if you’re nervous about any symptoms you develop, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare team. “You should never worry alone at home,” Ragsdale says. “If you’re concerned, we are here.”

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