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The Flu Shot Protects Mom, Fetus and Infant

Updated September 07, 2016

If you’re pregnant and haven’t gotten a flu shot it’s time to get one, says Geeta Swamy, MD, a Duke Health ob-gyn who recommends pregnant women get the vaccine each year, whether their pregnancy falls before, during and even after the flu season peaks.

“Maternal immunizations protect the mother, but have an even greater potential impact on your baby,” says Dr. Swamy, a nationally recognized expert on immunizations during pregnancy. “It’s only one vaccine but it has three very important benefits – it protects the mom, it protects the fetus by preventing the risks of preterm delivery and low birth weight, and it protects the newborn before he or she is old enough to be vaccinated.”

While pregnant women are not at higher risk for getting the flu, they are more likely to suffer serious complications, Dr. Swamy says. Data show pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalized; and they have higher rates of pneumonia, respiratory complications and death related to the influenza infection.

The risks to the unborn child are just as severe.

“Babies who are exposed to influenza during the mother’s pregnancy may suffer from long-term implications,” says Dr. Swamy. “Even if mom is fine, there is some evidence to suggest that influenza exposure can lead to medical problems that include psychiatric disorders in the baby’s future.”

Dr. Swamy stresses that pregnant women who get a flu shot are not exposing their fetus to the infection. Rather, they are transferring antibodies against influenza to their unborn baby. That reduces the infant’s risk of contracting the flu before they are old enough to be vaccinated.

The ability to transfer antibodies in utero is also important for other infections like pertussis, also known as whooping cough, which has reached epidemic proportions in some states. “The Centers for Disease Control now recommends that women get the pertussis vaccine during each pregnancy to protect their unborn child,” says Dr. Swamy.

Since no immunization is perfect, pregnant women who have been vaccinated against the flu should continue to take precautions. “If you think you have been exposed, we can offer prophylactic treatment with anti-virals,” says Dr. Swamy. If you experience flu-like symptoms, including severe headache, malaise, fever and body aches, call your doctor.

“The ideal scenario is to obtain treatment within the first 48 hours,” says Dr. Swamy. That and a flu shot are your best lines of defense against a rampant infection that could have severe consequences for you and child.