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What If You Catch a Cold or Flu Virus in Pregnancy?

Pregnancy is an exciting and scary time. What if you get sick with a cold or flu? Which treatments are safe and which can harm your baby? House Call Doctor explains.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD
6-minute read
Episode #140

How to Treat Cold and Flu in Pregnancy

  • Nasal congestion:  Use a humidifier – this will return some moisture into the air, which will help open up your nasal passages and subsequently drain that mucus (similar to a soothing warm-shower effect).
  • Runny nose:  If the dripping is leaving your nose feeling like an over-flowing faucet, then one group of over-the-counter drugs you can ask your doctor about are antihistamines that work to “dry up” those tubes.  The most well-studied in pregnancy are chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine, typically our first-line choices for expecting mothers.
  • Fever, sore throat, geadache, body aches:  Please never use an anti-inflammatory drug while pregnant – this includes aspirin, ibuprofen, Aleve, Motrin, or Advil.  The only over-the-counter pain aid or fever reducer deemed safe during pregnancy is acetaminophen (or Tylenol).
  • Flu vaccine:  Prior influenza pandemics were associated with more severe symptoms and risks (including death) in pregnant women.  For that reason, we recommend the flu vaccine for every pregnant woman. 

What Treatments to Avoid in Pregnancy

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories:  Like I mentioned earlier, these are contraindicated in pregnancy.  Drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin have been associated with some fetal defects, such as heart anomalies, cleft palate, and gastrointestinal defects.
  • Throat lozenges:  Be careful when selecting a throat lozenge to treat your sore throat.  Some ingredients, such as zinc, are controversial and have been associated with some possible fetal anomalies (such as brain defects).  Opt for acetaminophen for your sore throat instead of a lozenge. Or better yet, drink some hot tea with lemon or honey.
  • Vitamin C:  Large doses of vitamin C can also be harmful in pregnancy and doctors don’t recommend supplementation for viral syndromes -- there have been reports of it causing scurvy in infants born to moms who took high doses of vitamin C while pregnant.
  • Cough medicines:  Cough syrup ingredients, such as codeine, dextromethorphan, and guaifenisin, haven’t been well-studied in pregnant women.  Because we are not sure of their effects on a growing fetus, they are to be avoided in pregnancy.
  • Decongestants:  Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are also not advised as they can increase blood pressure and have been associated with certain congenital fetal anomalies.

Quick and Dirty Tip:  Antibiotics do not work on viruses.  Antibiotics only work for bacterial illnesses – such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, strep throat, ear infections, and bacterial sinusitis (nasal congestion is usually viral, however, especially the first 7-10 days of an illness).  Contrary to popular myth, bronchitis is also typically viral (but may require other prescription treatments).

Red Flags

The common cold virus is, well, pretty common.  And the flu virus runs rampant in the winter months.  But if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor right away:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • High fevers
  • Abdominal pain
  • No improvement in symptoms after 7-10 days
  • Severe symptoms or anything out of the ordinary

The truth is, pregnancy is truly a special time in our lives.  For those women who have been given the gift of fertility, please treasure it and treat your body and baby with great care and love.  When in doubt about anything, seek your doctor's advise.  If it doesn’t feel like the run of the mill cold, then it’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially when you are pregnant.  And again, before you consider any treatment, you should always consult your obstetrician.

Share your ideas and learn more quick and dirty tips with us on the House Call Doctor’s Facebook and Twitter pages!

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Pregnant woman sneezing and pregnant woman with cold images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.