Treating a Cold or Flu When Pregnant

Written by Colleen Story and Valencia Higuera | Published on March 19, 2015
Medically Reviewed by Healthline Medical Team on March 19, 2015

Wondering how to treat a cold or flu while you're pregnant? We can help you out with that.

Overview

Everything changes when you become pregnant. Everything you do affects not only your body, but also your unborn child.

This realization makes getting a cold or flu more complicated. You may have taken an over-the-counter decongestant in the past, but now you might wonder: Is it safe? You may worry about the flu virus affecting your baby. And what if you suffer from a fever, or diarrhea? Could those symptoms hurt your child?

There are definitely safe medications to take when pregnant.
Dr. Roseline Dauphin-Baptiste

"Pregnant moms who have a cold or the flu are always worried about the infection getting to their baby," says Dr. Roseline Dauphin-Baptiste, a practicing OB/GYN in Burbank, California. "If they have to take medication, they always ask if it is going to cause problems for the baby."

Fortunately, treating a cold or flu during pregnancy doesn't have to be a frightening experience. "There are definitely safe medications to take when pregnant," says Dauphin-Baptiste.

Pregnancy Risks

Pregnant women have a higher risk of getting a cold and the flu because their immune system is weakened during pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This helps stop the woman's body from rejecting the unborn baby. However, it can also leave expecting moms vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. 

Pregnant women are also more likely than non-pregnant women their age to experience complications of the flu. These complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, or sinus infections. Getting a flu vaccination is a very important form of prevention. 

Every woman who is pregnant or is contemplating pregnancy should be up-to-date with her flu vaccine
Dr. Ingrid Rodi

"Every woman who is pregnant or is contemplating pregnancy should be up-to-date with her flu vaccine," says Dr. Ingrid Rodi, a clinical professor of OB/GYN at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "It is very dangerous to get the flu while pregnant."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting a vaccination can help protect pregnant women and their babies up to six months after birth. Ask your doctor about preservative-free vaccine if you're concerned about trace amounts of mercury used as a preservative in most vaccines.

You can do other things to reduce your risks of getting sick in addition to getting vaccinated:

  • wash your hands often
  • get enough sleep
  • eat a healthy diet
  • avoid close contact with ill family or friends
  • exercise regularly
  • reduce stress

Treatments for a Cold or Flu During Pregnancy

Certain tried-and-true cold treatments can be trusted whether or not you’re pregnant. These include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking a lot of fluids
  • gargling with warm salt-water for a sore throat or cough

Saline nasal drops and spray are perfectly safe for loosening nasal mucus and soothing inflamed nasal tissue. Using warm, humid air is a natural way to help loosen congestion as well. Try a facial steamer, a hot-mist vaporizer, or even a hot shower. Chicken soup can also help relieve inflammation and soothe congestion.

Adding some honey or lemon to a warm cup of decaffeinated tea can help relieve a sore throat, and elevating your head may help you to get some rest. Hot and cold packs can help alleviate sinus pain.

What About Medications?

According to the University of Michigan Health System and most obstetricians, it's best to avoid all medications in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That's a critical time for the development of your baby's vital organs.

Many doctors also recommend caution after 28 weeks as well. Ask your doctor for recommendations. "You should always check with your doctor before taking any medication when you are attempting pregnancy or are pregnant," Rodi says. 

Several medications are considered safe after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

"Some safe over-the-counter options would be regular Tylenol for a headache, Claritin for a nasal decongestant, or Robitussin for a cough," Dauphin-Baptiste says.

Use medications only as needed and according to the package directions:

  • Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) for nasal congestion
  • Robitussin (dextromethorphan) and Robitussin DM cough syrups
  • Vicks plain cough syrup
  • Vicks or other menthol rub on your chest, temples, and under the nose
  • Nasal strips — sticky pads that open congested airways
  • Hall's cough drops or Cepacol lozenges
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen) for aches, pains, and fevers
  • Cough suppressant at night
  • Expectorant during the day
  • Mylanta, Tums, or similar medications for heartburn, nausea, or upset stomach
  • Imodium or Kaopectate for diarrhea 

Avoid "all-in-one" medications that combine drugs to tackle many symptoms. Instead, choose single medications only for those symptoms you're struggling with.

You should also avoid taking the following medications unless they’re specifically recommended by your doctor. These can increase risks for some pregnancy problems:

  • ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, and others)
  • codeine
  • Bactrim (an antibiotic)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • aspirin

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Although most colds do not cause problems for an unborn child, the flu should be taken more seriously.

The flu can put pregnant women at risk of complications, such as high fevers and pneumonia. These complications increase the risk of premature delivery and birth defects. Get medical help right away if you experience the following symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain/pressure
  • vaginal bleeding
  • confusion
  • severe vomiting
  • high fever that isn't reduced by Tylenol
  • decreased movement of your baby

The CDC recommends that pregnant women with flu-like symptoms be treated immediately with antiviral medications. If you have any questions, call your doctor's office — it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Find an obstetrician near you »

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