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Pregnant in a Pandemic: The Flu, Coronavirus and Pregnancy

Pregnant woman wearing overalls and a facemask outdoors

With flu season fast approaching, many people will begin worrying about two viruses instead of one.

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms making it difficult to tell the difference between them without testing. Flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, but there are some key differences between the two, especially for people who are pregnant.

Here’s what you should know about how the flu and coronavirus affect parents-to-be and their developing babies.

Pregnancy, the Flu and Coronavirus

In general, young, healthy people of reproductive age don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, and disease without symptoms (asymptomatic) is common. Pregnant individuals also have equal likelihood of becoming infected with coronavirus than people who aren’t pregnant.

However, pregnant people may be at a slightly higher risk of some complications due to coronavirus, including ICU admission and the need for mechanical ventilation. But, the risk of death does not seem to be higher for those who are pregnant. Here’s more of what we know about pregnancy, breastfeeding and the coronavirus.

Pregnant people are more likely than their non-pregnant counterparts to become severely ill from the flu (influenza), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnancy changes your immune system, lungs and heart, and can make you more prone to severe illness from flu, including illnesses that require hospitalization, for up to two weeks postpartum. If you get the flu while you’re pregnant, the virus can also be harmful to your developing baby.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of coronavirus or the flu, including fever, muscle aches, sore throat, cough, and difficulty breathing, call your doctor as soon as possible. Fever may be linked to birth defects, including those of the brain and spinal cord, that can cause problems for your baby’s development and overall health.

COVID-19 and the Flu from Mother to Baby

The risk of transmission of COVID-19 from mother to baby is extremely low. Coronavirus is not like zika, rubella, HIV, syphilis or toxoplasmosis, and there is no evidence that COVID-19 causes birth defects.

Currently, there is not a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, but researchers and manufacturers – including those at Penn Medicine – are working to develop one as quickly as possible.

Luckily, there is a vaccine that can help protect you and your baby from the flu.

While it is important for everyone, it’s even more critical to get vaccinated against the flu if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or you have children, pregnant people or older people in your life. The flu vaccine is safe for women to take at any point in pregnancy. Getting vaccinated can help protect your baby from flu after birth. You’ll pass on antibodies from the vaccine to your developing baby during pregnancy.

Flu season and COVID-19

While it’s unknown what the future will bring, there is some hope.

Because both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through respiratory droplets, the changes we’ve already made to flatten the curve of COVID-19, including social distancing, more frequent hand washing, increased sanitization and mask wearing, could help to lessen the impact of flu.

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