When you become pregnant, everything changes. Suddenly you realize that whatever you do affects not only your body, but that of your unborn child as well.

That realization can make having a cold or flu more complicated than usual. You may have taken an over-the-counter decongestant in the past, but now wonder: Is it safe? You may worry that if you catch the flu virus it may adversely affect your baby. And what if you suffer from a fever, or diarrhea? Could those symptoms hurt your child?

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“Pregnant moms who have a cold or the flu are always worried about the infection getting to their baby,” says Dr. Roseline Dauphin-Baptiste, 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 Dr. Dauphin-Baptiste.

Pregnant women are more susceptible to catching a cold or the flu. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the immune system is lowered during pregnancy. This helps stop the woman’s body from rejecting the unborn baby. (Cleveland Clinic, 2011) However, it can also leave expecting moms more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections.

Pregnant women are also more likely than non-pregnant women their age to experience complications of the flu, such as pneumonia or other bronchial infections. Therefore, getting vaccinated for the flu is very important.

“Every woman who is pregnant or is contemplating pregnancy should be up-to-date with her flu vaccine,” says Ingrid Rodi, M.D., Associate 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 health organization Kaiser Permanente, pregnant women who get a flu shot get the flu less often than those who don’t. Their babies also get the flu less often (Kaiser Permanente, 2011). If you’re concerned about trace amounts of mercury used as a preservative in most vaccines, ask your doctor about preservative-free vaccine.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you can do other things to reduce your risks of getting sick. Wash your hands often, get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and minimize stress to prevent illness.

Certain tried-and-true cold treatments can be trusted whether or not you’re pregnant. They include getting plenty of rest, drinking a lot of fluids, and 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. Additionally, hot and cold packs can help alleviate sinus pain.

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 organs. (University of Michigan)

Many doctors also recommend caution after 28 weeks as well. Be sure to ask your physician for recommendations. “You should always check with your doctor before taking any medication when you are attempting pregnancy or are pregnant,” says Dr. Rodi.

After 12 weeks of pregnancy, several medications are considered safe.

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

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.

Also, avoid taking the following unless specifically recommended by your doctor. These can increase risks for some pregnancy problems.

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

Though most colds do not present dangers to the unborn child, the flu should be taken more seriously.

The flu can put pregnant women at risk of complications like high fevers and pneumonia. These, in turn, put the unborn child at risk of premature delivery or birth defects. In addition, if you experience dizziness, difficulty breathing, chest pain/pressure, confusion, severe vomiting, high fever that isn’t reduced by Tylenol, or a decreased movement of your baby, be sure to get medical help right away.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that pregnant women with flu-like symptoms be treated immediately with antiviral medications. (CDC, 2010)

If you have any questions, call your doctor’s office—it’s always better to be safe than sorry.