Can you get it when you're pregnant? Every question we asked a doctor about the flu vaccine.

NSW Health
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Turn on the TV this week and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a story that isn’t covering NSW's sharp rise in respiratory illnesses, like whooping cough and influenza (flu) outbreaks.

With hospitals on high-alert and an increased number of kids coughing their way through winter, there’s never been a more important time to protect yourself and your family.

Below, we asked specialist GP and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Dr Melanie Mapleson on absolutely everything we need to know — including the most common questions she gets asked every winter season by her pregnant patients.

Why is the flu vaccine so important in pregnancy? 

During pregnancy, there are changes to the body’s immune system, cardiovascular system and respiratory system that make you more vulnerable to severe illness. If you’re unlucky enough you might catch influenza, also known as the flu. 

"You’re actually more vulnerable to severe disease and being hospitalised if you’re pregnant," says Dr Mapleson. "Our bodies are amazing things, especially when we’re pregnant. But when we’re working really hard to grow another person, an infection like the flu can put extra strain on our body. Like all illnesses, prevention is far better than cure."

For mamas and surrogates who are vaccinated against the flu during pregnancy, these protective antibodies are transferred through the placenta to your developing baby. This protection can then last up to six months after birth and reduces the likelihood of newborns being hospitalised with influenza in their first six months of life by 90 per cent.

"This is amazing because a baby can’t get their own vaccination until six months of age, so having that indirect protection through the parent getting vaccinated is the best thing we can do for a baby who is too young to have their own vaccine," explains Dr Mapleson. 

This is particularly important given flu can be serious in kids under the age of five. "That’s where we see higher rates of complications and visits to hospitals," adds Dr Mapleson. "The younger you are, the more severe the illness but also at the other end of the spectrum — the older you are, the same can apply."

Is the flu vaccine free, and is it safe? 

The flu vaccine is safe and free for those who are pregnant, aged 65 years and over, Aboriginal from 6 months, and for all children aged six months to under five years old.

Best of all, you don’t even have to visit the doctor, you can just head to your local pharmacy (— handy to know, children five and over can get vaccinated at the pharmacy!). 

"It's a useful option for parents, in terms of protecting against the viruses covered by the flu vaccine for that particular year," says Dr Mapleson. "There have been extensive studies on the risks of flu vaccination in pregnancy and there’s been no evidence found that it increases risk of anything or any complication to either mum or unborn baby." 

As one of the safest interventions we can have during pregnancy (and for those who aren’t pregnant), the flu vaccine may simply leave you feeling a bit tired for a day or two. "The common side effects are mild and benign and may last for a day or two but they’re certainly not harmful," explains Dr Mapleson. "The benefit of having that vaccination protection far outweighs the risk of the flu to mum and baby."

Do I need to wait till my third trimester to get the flu vaccine? 

Nope! The flu vaccine is perfectly safe to receive during any trimester. 

"Try to do it as early as possible in the flu season [April through to October]," advises Dr Mapleson. "Your body starts to respond immediately to build those antibodies and then has a lasting effect for a couple of months." 

Another reason not to hesitate? As Dr Mapleson points out — flu and other respiratory viruses are often in the community before they make the news. "I wouldn’t be waiting for the second or third trimester if you’re in early pregnancy and we’re in flu season. I’d jump on it."

Does getting a flu vaccine mean I won’t get sick this winter? 

A flu vaccine is your best protection from getting really sick from influenza. There are a range of other respiratory viruses circulating in winter, so keep in mind some simple steps that can help protect yourself and your loved ones. Such as staying home if we're sick, getting the flu vaccine and practicing good hand hygiene, including hand washing. "The more things we do to help protect ourselves, the more we galvanise against risk," adds Dr Mapleson.

I’m sick but I want to get the flu vaccination, do I need to wait? 

If you’re on antibiotics or have a fever, Dr Mapleson suggests holding off until you’re on the mend. "I wouldn’t get vaccinated in an acute episode of illness because if you feel worse the day after vaccination, your healthcare professional won’t know if that’s your existing illness or if it's vaccine related," she explains. 

"If you’re well enough to drop the kids off at school, you’re not having fevers, and you’re not on antibiotics, it's recommended to go and get vaccinated immediately."

My little ones are constantly sick — what can I do? 

If there’s one thing every parent can relate to, it’s the dreaded call from daycare or school telling you your kids are sick — again. 

While there’s not much we can do to avoid these bugs (yep, they’re sadly a part of life), we can get our kids the flu vaccine, keep them home when they are sick and also encourage hand hygiene to help prevent never-ending viruses. "Kids have quite immature immune systems and whilst we’d love to have a magic pill that helps them to never get sick, they are going to need to be exposed to those illnesses in order for their immune systems to build up protection for future exposure," explains Dr Mapleson. 

"Some kids get sicker than others, and it’s always difficult having those back-to-back illnesses, but if we can drill in the importance of hand hygiene, getting vaccinated, and keeping ourselves and our kids home when sick, then that’s the absolute best we can do."

I’m pregnant and I’ve got a cold, should I bother going to the doctor? 

If you’re pregnant and unwell, especially if you have a fever or respiratory symptoms, it’s worth paying a visit to your doctor. 

"Even though it might just be a common head cold, you want someone to listen to your chest and check your temperature objectively," says Dr Mapleson. "If you’re in later pregnancy, also chat about baby movements and hydration." 

In addition to visiting the doctor, Dr Mapleson also recommends plenty of rest, increased hydration and accepting help when offered. Importantly, if you have a blocked nose and are pregnant, or lactating, be mindful of decongestant medications. "Any decongestant medications can impact your milk supply as they can have a drying up effect on your nose and your breasts," she explains.

Book your free flu vaccine at your doctor or local pharmacy. The flu vaccine is safe at any stage during pregnancy, and free if you're expecting.

This information is general in nature and does not replace the advice of a healthcare professional. As with any vaccination, always seek health advice from a qualified healthcare professional.

If you are unwell and not sure where to go, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for free 24/7 health advice from a registered nurse. If it’s an emergency, call Triple Zero (000) or go to an Emergency Department.

You can follow Dr Melanie Mapleson on Instagram at @drmelmapleson.

Feature Image: Getty.

NSW Health
Protect yourself and your family from influenza (flu), so you can keep doing the things you love.
Flu is serious, but your yearly flu vaccine offers the best protection from getting really sick and is now available from your doctor or pharmacy.
Getting a flu vaccine is quick, easy and recommended for everyone aged 6 months and over.
The flu vaccine is free for people who are at risk of severe illness:
- Children aged 6 months to under five years
- Pregnant women
- People aged 65 years and older
- Aboriginal people from 6 months
- Those with serious health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, immune disorders, severe asthma, kidney heart or lung disease.
Book your flu vaccine today.