I just got my flu shot. The cart comes around at the hospital, I roll up my sleeve, and it’s done. Working with pregnant moms, new moms and babies all the time – I like to do my part to keep everyone healthy. Flu shots aren’t perfect, but they are the best we can do right now – and I like to do my best too!

Are you pregnant? Or do you have a baby? Or do you love a baby and hang around with a baby? I hope you will get your flu shot too.

I remember how surprised I was to discover that pregnant women have depressed immune systems. What??!! I was eating well, sleeping lots (well, at least during the first two trimesters!), and the pregnant body is such a wonder. How could I be more likely to get sick? Recent thinking in the field reinforces the wonder of the pregnant body – and tells us that the immune system is different – not depressed! – in pregnancy. Our bodies actually react differently to different threats, depending on where we are in our pregnancies. Our pregnancy immune systems are a complex – and elegant – combination of the mother’s and the baby’s immune system.

Assessing the Risk/Benefit Ratio

The thought of putting something strange into our pregnant bodies – and thus into our babies – can make us pretty nervous. Sometimes people say “the flu shot gave me the flu” – but since flu shots are very often given during “oh no another cold” season, it’s pretty hard to tease out. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says about side effects, which usually begin soon after the shot and last 1-2 days:

  • soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • hoarseness; sore, red or itchy eyes; cough, fever, aches, headache
  • itching
  • fatigue

Contrast those side effects with the risks of true influenza – a respiratory virus that can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections, beyond a wretched panoply of

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

We know that babies in utero are not immune from the viruses their moms catch. The classic was German measles (rubella). Back in the 1960’s there was in fact a rubella epidemic, and many cases of babies being born deaf. Today the MMR vaccine helps us keep ourselves and our babies safe.

The influenza vaccine given to pregnant women is what’s called an inactivated vaccine. It will help to confer some immunity to your baby (breastfeeding will be a great “booster” in this case), and the vaccine you get will not harm your baby.

Pregnant women have been studied quite a bit when it comes to influenza vaccines. You can read one of the latest literature reviews on the Expert Reviews website. The authors, Hisano and Yamaguchi, note that pregnant women are at increased risk of influenza and its related complications. In fact, during the H1N1 2009 epidemic, there were many reports of very, very sick pregnant women – and six deaths in women who were otherwise healthy. Who would want to compromise their baby’s oxygen levels or chance hurting their baby with a fever?

The good news is that babies of immunized moms were at decreased risk for flu illness and hospitalization – up through six months of age. So you are keeping yourself and your baby safer before and after they are born.

There’s a lot of fear around immunizations – and we seldom see people who die from the flu (although sometimes when we get it we can be so miserable….). Don’t let fear – and a lack of knowledge – stop you from asking your doctor or midwife about immunization at your next appointment!

For more education about influenza, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control website.

Talk to your baby’s pediatrician about influenza protection. For babies younger than six months, make sure family, friends and caregivers are protected. At six months, your baby can get his own flu shot.

Here’s to a healthy winter for all of us!