Viral illnesses are a big worry for pregnant women. Many symptom-combating over-the-counter meds are off-limits — and thanks to a weakened immune system during pregnancy, a nasty virus can sometimes turn into an even nastier infection.

That’s why vitamin C supplements like Emergen-C — which promise to help you fight off every germ that cold, flu, and, er, pandemic season throws your way — are so tempting.

Talk to your doctor

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or a fever while pregnant, don’t attempt to self-treat with vitamin C. Call your doctor.

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These supplements are like vitamin boosts, providing as much immune-supporting vitamin C as a truckload of oranges — and that sounds like a pretty good idea when you’re pregnant or nursing and everyone around you is coughing.

But is it actually a good idea? Most supplements are considered unsafe during pregnancy because they aren’t regulated by the FDA in the same way as drugs. Plus, some supplements and medications taken while breastfeeding can affect your baby.

Emergen-C rests solidly in the check-with-your-doctor-first category, and we’ll tell you why.

There are several different kinds of Emergen-C supplements, all of which contain what the brand calls “high potency vitamin C.”

This is mostly a fancy term for “enough vitamin C to turn you into an orange,” but some vitamin manufacturers claim it means their formulas are less likely to cause digestive upset and more likely to be absorbed into the bloodstream than other kinds of vitamin C.

Some Emergen-C products, such as Everyday Immune Support and Enhanced Immune Support Formula, contain a whopping 1,000 milligrams per serving, along with:

Other Emergen-C products include:

  • energizing vitamins
  • plant-based vitamins
  • probiotics
  • electrolyte drinks
  • a sleep aid

These products may contain lower levels of vitamin C but also probiotic strains, vitamins D and E, elderberries, melatonin, ginseng, and caffeine.

We get it: No one wants to sit around peeling and eating oranges all day in an effort to ward off the plague. There’s a lot of appeal in dissolving some powder into water and chugging down all that sweet, immune-boosting vitamin C in just minutes (or popping a couple of gummies or chewable vitamins).

But if you’re pregnant, you should talk to your doctor first. Most doctors advise pregnant women to steer clear of supplements — other than prenatal vitamins and a handful of much-needed nutrients — for a healthy pregnancy.

That goes for vitamin C, too, as the research is unfortunately lacking. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that some studies have investigated vitamin C’s effects on pregnancy and birth outcomes, but the results have been mixed. Vitamin C improved outcomes in some cases, but not in others.

As such, the WHO doesn’t recommend the widespread supplementation of vitamin C during pregnancy. That doesn’t mean vitamin C use during pregnancy could harm you, but it does mean there’s not enough evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks. Plus, its effects on immune health specifically during pregnancy haven’t been closely studied.

The restrictions are slightly more lax for nursing mothers, though there are things to know there, too.

According to the Drugs and Lactation Database, you can take a high daily dose of 1,000 milligrams — like what you would find in Emergen-C — without any adverse effects for you or your baby. However, high amounts of vitamin C could increase your milk supply, so if you’re already struggling with overproduction, keep that in mind.

The amount of vitamin C in Emergen-C products varies but tops off at 1,000 milligrams per serving for their immune-boosting formulas. Meanwhile, their energy vitamins and probiotics include between 250 and 500 milligrams.

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), pregnant women over 19 years old should get 85 milligrams of vitamin C daily, while breastfeeding women over 19 should get 120 milligrams daily. These numbers are slightly lower — 80 and 155, respectively — if you’re under 19.

As for how much vitamin C you can take without having side effects, the makers of Emergen-C advise that no one consumes more than 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day. The ODS confirms that this is also the upper daily limit (UL) for pregnant and breastfeeding women over 19.

Short-term use of more than 2,000 milligrams per day may not cause any problems other than mild digestive distress, but some research has shown that long-term “megadoses” of vitamin C could cause kidney stones or excess iron absorption.

Unfortunately, pregnant women have more vulnerable immune systems. In fact, they’re usually lumped into that infamous “immunocompromised” category along with infants and the elderly. You know how you can’t eat soft cheese during pregnancy because you might get develop listeriosis? That’s because your immune system is weaker than usual.

That said, you’ll get some supplemental vitamin C in your prenatal vitamin, though the amount will vary by brand. Most contain about 85 milligrams per serving, which puts you squarely in the “recommended daily value for pregnant women” camp and should be enough to keep you healthy under normal circumstances.

Whether you choose to add an additional vitamin C supplement is up to you — you may feel you need it during sick season (or if you have other small children at home constantly sharing all their preschool germs with you). But you should ask your doctor first if that’s OK, and how much extra you should take.

Don’t forget that you can also get an extra boost of vitamin C from foods, which is a safer but just-as-effective way to increase your levels. Try eating lots of citrus fruits, red and green pepper, broccoli, cherries, spinach, and strawberries.

We understand the impulse to load up on as much vitamin C is safe during pregnancy, especially when there’s a viral pandemic raging in your neighborhood. But more is not always best when it comes to supplements, so you need to check with your doctor before you consume extra amounts of vitamin C.

Furthermore, the good people at Emergen-C agree. In their FAQ section, consumers are instructed to consult their healthcare provider if they’re pregnant or nursing.

Vitamin C supplements like Emergen-C are probably fine for occasional use, but there’s not much evidence proving their safety or usefulness when it comes to fighting illnesses during pregnancy.

Stay healthy these 9 months by eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals and practicing good hand hygiene. If you still feel like you need an additional boost of vitamin C, talk to your doctor.