"Pregnant women can use most over-the-counter cold preparations; however they need to avoid any products containing a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (ibuprofen, naproxen, common names include Motrin®, Alleve®, etc.), and any nasal sprays except saline (salt water)," says Dr. Laura Goetzl, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and author of Healthy Pregnancy over 35.
Dr. Goetzl says that usually OBs have a printed list of safe over-the-counter medications that they hand out to patients to reduce phone calls. If you haven't received one from your doctor, be sure to ask for one. Taking this list to the pharmacy or grocery store can really help reduce the number of times you end up buying a product you can't safely use.
"Unfortunately, many of the over-the-counter medicines for colds are not particularly effective, and the common cold is a self-limited illness and may be amenable to non-pharmacologic treatments," says Dr. Margaret Miller, an assistant professor of Medicine and Obstetrics/Gynecology at The Warren Alpert School of Medicine of Brown University in Providence. "Patients should be aware that over-the-counter cold medicines don't make the cold go away; they just treat the symptoms. Although a cold can be miserable, it is most often short lived, and pregnant women and their providers should consider the potential risk of medication."
If it's decided that medication is in the best interest of both the mom-to-be and her child, Dr. Miller says that a number of medicines have extensive data showing they're safe for use during pregnancy. Some of these include acetaminophen (Tylenol®), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed®), dextromethaphen (DM), guanefasine (the active ingredient in Robitussin®), and Afrin® nasal spray. Chlorpheniramine (Clor-trimeton®) is the preferred antihistamine in pregnancy.
"However, it's important to point out that any of these medicines could become 'unsafe' if overused—in too high a dose or over too long of a duration," Dr. Miller says.
And Dr. Goetzl says that nasal stuffiness is a common side effect of pregnancy due to an increased blood flow through the nose (another side effect is more frequent bloody noses), so pregnant women shouldn't over treat these symptoms by taking medication unless they're sure they have a cold.
With this in mind, many moms-to-be may want to first try and see if any of the tried-and-true home remedies brings relief to their cold symptoms. And as it turns out, some of your mom's best advice when you were sick as a kid actually has proven benefits—now more than ever. "All home remedies, including hot tea, chicken soup, Gatorade, and such are safe, except I would avoid herbal teas unless women check with their doctors, as some herbal teas contain active substances that can be harmful in pregnancy or have unknown effects," Dr. Goetzl says. "But one of the best safe remedies is to use a humidifier while you sleep when you have a cold." One important tip: Be sure the humidifier is properly cleaned so that it doesn't harbor mold and bacteria.
Dr. Miller agrees that home remedies such as chicken soup, hot tea, and a cool-mist humidifier are certainly safe and are worth a try if it makes pregnant women feel better. Another important aid? Plenty of rest, Dr. Miller says. Sleep is still one of the best ways to let your body fight off a cold, and it's incredibly important that pregnant women get enough sleep.
"Herbs or herbal teas are mostly safe, but should be viewed as medication and ingredients reviewed with a healthcare provider," Dr. Miller says. "Although not well studied, there are some saline nasal irrigation systems that have been helpful for patients, particularly patients with sinus congestion."
Gargling warm salt water, while not particularly tasty, can also help with sore throats. And finally, what you put into your body helps determine how effectively it can fight a cold, so be sure to eat nutrient-rich foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, Dr. Cates says.
"Inadequate levels of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, E and C, B vitamins, and zinc may decrease immunity and increase the chances of catching a cold," Dr. Cates says. "Choose a high-quality prenatal multivitamin-mineral supplement to help protect overall health and enhance the immune system. A study in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics concluded that supplementing the diet with a multivitamin mineral and probiotic combination may help prevent and fight the common cold. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria residing in the intestines, which help support proper digestive and immune function and are also safe during pregnancy."
What Not to Ignore
Don't brush off certain symptoms, which can be indicative of a more serious problem. Dr. Miller says that women should always check with their healthcare provider if they develop fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, or extreme fatigue/lethargy. And if symptoms don't abate after a few days or seem to worsen, you should also call your doctor.