Is the flu worse for pregnant women?

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In 13 years of monitoring influenza, the CDC announced that, as of January 6, every part of the continental U.S. showed “widespread” flu activity.

“This is the first year we had the entire continental U.S. be the same color on the graph, meaning there’s widespread activity in all of the continental U.S. at this point,” CDC Influenza Division Director Dr. Dan Jernigan said. “It is in a lot of places and causing a lot of flu.”

And, the flu is an especially dangerous illness for pregnant women.

Today, more than half of pregnant women in the United States ““ an estimated 52 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ““ choose to receive the flu vaccination.

That statistic is on the rise, up from less than 40 percent five years ago, which is good news, but it still leaves close to half of pregnant women in our country choosing not to protect themselves and their babies from influenza.

When you’re pregnant, changes in your immune, heart and lung functions make you more likely to get seriously ill from the flu, the CDC says. In fact, pregnant women who get the flu are at a higher risk of hospitalization, and even death, than non-pregnant women.

“The pregnant woman is already in a compromised state, in a way, because she’s growing another human being inside of her, so to expect her to have top immunity while she’s pregnant is a bad presumption,” said Dr. Susan Oakley, director of pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery with St. Elizabeth Physicians.

But the dangers don’t stop there. Pregnant women with serious illnesses, such as the flu, have an increased risk for premature labor and delivery, as well. And any time a pregnant woman runs a fever, either because of the flu or another illness, the effects on the fetus can be devastating.

“Once a pregnant woman gets a fever, not only does her heart rate increase but so does the baby’s,” Oakley said, “and remember, while our immune systems are mature enough to ward things off, theirs are not. The smallest change can equal the biggest, most disastrous, negative outcome.”

That’s why the flu shot is the best protection for a pregnant woman and her baby. It’s safe and can be received at any time during pregnancy, regardless of trimester, it helps prevent premature labor and delivery, and it protects your baby after birth for six months. (Also, the CDC recommends yearly flu vaccines for everyone 6 months and older because children, especially children under 2, are at a greater risk of having complications from the flu than adults.)

If you do become sick with flu-like symptoms while pregnant, call your doctor right away. If you start running a fever, you should treat it with Tylenol (or a store-brand equivalent) as soon as possible and then call your doctor so he or she can monitor it.