DEAR DOCTOR K: I am two months pregnant. I can’t decide what to do about getting the flu shot. What are your thoughts?
DEAR READER: I understand your concern, but I think the risks associated with getting the flu when you are pregnant far outweigh any possible dangers associated with the vaccine.
This year’s flu shot will protect against both the seasonal flu virus and the H1N1 (swine) flu virus. The flu shot protects both mother and baby. The baby may be protected from the flu for several months after birth.
Are there risks to you or the baby from getting the flu shot? You might worry that the shot could give you or the baby the flu, but that’s not so. The flu shot is made from purified killed virus. That means there is no chance that you or your baby can get an infection from the vaccine.
The nasal spray version of the flu vaccine is a different matter, however. The nasal spray contains weakened but live virus. As a pregnant woman, you should NOT get the nasal spray version of the vaccine.
Flu shot vaccines are grown in eggs. People with egg allergies, pregnant or not, should talk to their doctors about whether they need a flu shot.
One risk that has worried people involves thimerosal, a preservative used in many vaccines. The best scientific evidence is that there are no bad effects on babies when mothers get shots containing this preservative.
Those are the risks of the flu shot. The benefit? It protects you against the considerable risks of getting the flu while pregnant:
• If you get the flu, you have a higher chance of getting pneumonia. This puts your health at risk. It also puts your baby at risk for not getting the oxygen needed for normal development.
• Having the flu during pregnancy increases your chances of a miscarriage or giving birth too early.
• Women who have a fever during early pregnancy are more likely to deliver a baby with a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida.
• The H1N1 (swine) flu virus that spread so rapidly around the world in 2009 and 2010 is still circulating. H1N1 was more likely to cause pneumonia in pregnant women than the usual winter flu virus.
In summary, unless you have an allergy to eggs, I think the choice is clear. Your risks, and your baby’s risks, from not getting the flu shot are far greater than any danger from getting the shot.
In addition to the flu shot, there are other things you can do to avoid getting sick during flu season – or anytime. For example, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. And practice good health habits such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods and drinking plenty of water.
Many of my patients think of the flu as somewhat like the common cold. That’s not true. The flu can be very serious. About 30,000 people die from flu every year in the United States. Don’t underestimate the risk from the flu to you and your baby.