It's official: Already, in January, the number of flu cases nationwide has reached "epidemic" proportions, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with 9 of the 10 regions of the United States now experiencing elevated flu virus activity. In hard-hit Boston, for example, the city has already documented over 700 cases of the flu—up from 70 cases last year—with the flu season there not even expected to peak until later this month or next.
The elderly and very young children are considered particularly at risk for contracting the flu. But so are pregnant women, due to natural changes in the body's immune system that can make it easier for moms-to-be to develop a viral infection—and more difficult to shake it off.
Time to panic? Even given the circumstances, no. "It's far more productive to stay calm," says Linda Burke-Galloway, M.D.,MS., FACOG, board-certified OB/GYN and author of The Smart Mother's Guide to a Better Pregnancy, especially since there is no shortage of steps moms-to-be can take to help stay healthy. For starters, Burke-Galloway urges, start practicing the CDC recommendations for flu prevention:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Don't have a tissue? Use your elbow.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleansers are also effective because they immediately reduce the number of germs.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Stay home and rest if you are sick. Limiting contact with others when you are sick can also prevent further spread of the virus.
- Stock up on food (i.e. chicken soup!), pregnancy-safe medicines, face masks, alcohol-based hand rubs and other essential supplies to have on hand if you do become sick. This helps you stay out of stores when you're contagious—and makes for fewer things you need to do before crawling into bed!
Though Burke-Galloway expresses mixed feelings about the flu shot, the CDC urges pregnant women to get a seasonal flu shot now (if they haven't already) as the best protection against serious illness from the flu. A flu shot can protect pregnant women, their unborn babies, and even the baby after birth. Is the flu shot right for you? If in doubt, double-check with your own doctor or midwife.
It's also a good idea to study up on what kinds of symptoms tell you you're probably coming down with something.
Is it the flu? According to Burke-Galloway, typical symptoms of seasonal flu virus include, "cough, sore throat, running nose, muscle aches and fever."
If you do notice these signs, get help. "Prevention is key," says Burke-Galloway. "But if a pregnant woman feels body aches and has a temperature, she should see her healthcare provider immediately and receive treatment."