The Flu Poses Serious Risks To Pregnant Women And Their Babies

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Jill Lehmann Photography / Getty Images

The flu is much more than just a bad cold. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year due to the flu, and last year alone, 79,400 deaths were attributed to influenza. Everyone needs to take these stats seriously, but this is especially true for populations like young children and the elderly, who are more vulnerable to flu complications than others.

And while most of us know that pregnant mothers are a group that need to take special precautions when it comes to the flu (get your flu shot, mamas!), what you might not know is that catching the flu when you are pregnant can have serious effects on your baby.

A new study published in Birth Defects Research found that moms who were hospitalized in the ICU with the flu while pregnant were up to four times as likely to deliver their babies prematurely. In addition, they were four and a half times more likely to delivery babies of low birth weights.

This is scary stuff, folks.

The study took place during the 2009 flu season, one of the worst flu seasons on record, where the H1N1 flu strain dominated. Researchers looked at 490 women who had caught the flu while pregnant and 1,451 women who hadn’t. 64 of the women who’d contracted the flu had been hospitalized, and it was these women the researchers were studying.

Besides being more likely to have premature babies and babies with low birth weights, the study found that pregnant women who’d been hospitalized (in the ICU specifically) due to the flu were 8 times more likely to have babies with APGAR scores on the low side (APGAR measure a baby’s color, heart rate, breathing, muscle tone, and reflexes).

Although the study researchers were able to identify these trends, they haven’t drawn any clear conclusions as to why having severe flu symptoms during pregnancy can cause these issues. Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, one of the study’s researchers, does have some theories, however.

Dr. Rasmussen tells NPR that it might not be the flu virus itself that causes these issues, but rather the complications these mothers experienced as a result of the virus, like pneumonia and impaired breathing.

“When moms are in the ICU, they often need help breathing, they need a ventilator to breath for them, and it may be that there is some period of time where they aren’t breathing well enough to get adequate oxygen to the baby,” says Dr. Rasmussen.

Inadequate nutrition may have also played a role. “When you’re having trouble breathing, you have trouble eating and it may be that mom wasn’t getting good nutrition during her time in the ICU,” Dr. Rasmussen hypothesized.

This is just heartbreaking.

The good news is that pregnant women who were not hospitalized in the ICU (even if they got the flu or were hospitalized outside of the ICU) did not have an increased likelihood of birthing babies with these kinds of adverse health issues.

Still, any pregnant woman who is eligible to receive the flu most definitely should, say the study researchers. Remember, too, that even if you do get the flu after receiving the vaccination, your symptoms will likely be milder – which could make the difference in terms of being admitted to the ICU.

And for those of you worried that the flu shot isn’t safe for a pregnant mom, I totally get that. I mistakenly thought the same thing when I was pregnant. However, the flu shot has been around for a long time – and pregnant women have been safely receiving it for many years.

“This is a vaccine we have been giving in pregnancy for many decades and there is no indication of any problems,” Dr. Denise Jamieson, from Emory University School of Medicine, tells NPR. “It’s a safe vaccine and we know more about this vaccine than any other vaccine in pregnancy.”

But besides protecting yourself and your unborn baby, it turns out getting a flu shot during pregnancy can protect your baby even after they’re born. Dr. Denise Jamieson shares with NPR an interesting tidbit about flu shots that I wasn’t even aware of. It turns out that the antibodies you produce in response to the flu shot during pregnancy actually cross over to the placenta, and this protection can benefit your baby till they’re about six months old.

That is really freaking cool, and yet another reason to get your flu shot while you’re pregnant. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell your friends and family to do the same. It truly takes a village when it comes to protecting one another from serious illnesses like the flu – and we all need to do our part.

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