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Sick but Pregnant—Are There Over-the-Counter Treatments to Take?

When you’re pregnant, you know to be careful about taking medicines that could affect your pregnancy and unborn child. But when you’re sick with a cold or the flu, you also need relief. What can you do?

Treating a Cold or Flu

The safest way to handle a cold or flu when you’re pregnant is to contact your doctor. Your obstetrician can assess your symptoms and determine what is best for your specific case.

The old adage to feed a cold and starve a fever isn’t applicable when you’re pregnant. With either illness, the advice is the same: Try to get plenty of rest so your body can build immunities and recover. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and try to eat even small meals to stay nourished.

If you have any health conditions, such as high blood pressure or a high-risk pregnancy, talk with your doctor before taking any medications. In addition, if you are currently on medicine for a health condition, consult with your doctor before adding any others, to ensure the different prescriptions don’t create a drug interaction.

What to Avoid

Some over-the-counter medicines contain ingredients that could impact your pregnancy or a baby’s development. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that taking medicines such as ibuprofen and naproxen during early pregnancy could increase the risk of some birth defects. Other medicines may contain caffeine, commonly found in painkillers such as Excedrin, or alcohol, an ingredient in certain cough syrups. Ingesting high doses of caffeine and alcohol should be avoided in pregnancy as they can cross from the mom’s body to baby’s.

Also avoid over-the-counter herbal medications, which are not regulated or monitored by the federal surveillance systems.

Timing Matters

At certain points during pregnancy, some over-the-counter medicines may be safe. Medicines containing pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed, may be safe later in pregnancy, but not in the first semester during the most critical point of a baby’s development, and not if you have high blood pressure.

Safer Options

Over-the-counter medications that may be safe to treat cold and flu symptoms during pregnancy include:

  • Antihistamines - loratadine, cetirizine, diphenhydramine, chlopheniramine
  • Decongestants - pseudoephedrine can be used limitedly for one to two days after the first trimester and if you do not have high blood pressure
  • Expectorants - guaifenesin, dextromethorphan
  • Analgesics (pain) - acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Natural Remedies

You can try natural remedies such as humidifiers, nasal irrigation such as the Neti Pot using sterile water, saline nasal spray, vapor rub/mentholated salve externally under your nose, nasal dilator strips (adhesive strips to mechanically hold the nasal passages open), and elevating your upper body/head 30 to 45 degrees while sleeping to help ease congestion.

Keep hydrated with water or decaffeinated teas such as ginger or chamomile. For sore throats, try drinking warm decaffeinated tea with honey, sucking on throat lozenges or gargling with warm, salted water or warm water mixed with apple cider vinegar.

Preventing Illnesses

The best way to handle an illness, of course, is to avoid it. Use good hand hygiene and wear a mask when you are in close proximity to people with cold-like symptoms, such as when traveling on buses, trains or airplanes. The CDC recommends the flu shot as one of the best ways to stay well during the flu season. If there is no contraindication, women who are pregnant should be vaccinated. Receiving the vaccine as a shot instead of the nasal spray is recommended by the CDC. Women who get the flu shot reduce their chances of becoming hospitalized from the flu by 40 percent.

The Importance of the Flu Shot

An additional benefit of the vaccine for you and your family is increased protection of your newborn. Pregnant woman gets flu shotWhen those who will be around your newborn are vaccinated, you reduce the chance of having the flu and passing it on to your newborn, who would be too young to receive the vaccine directly.

If you have flu symptoms, the CDC suggests calling your doctor right away to see if you may be able to get antiviral drugs to ease your symptoms and prevent serious complications. If you have other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, persistent vomiting, high fever that doesn’t respond to acetaminophen (Tylenol) or decreased movement of your baby, call 911.

Being sick while pregnant isn’t easy, but by taking steps to prevent getting sick and carefully determining the safest treatments for your illness, you can feel better and keep your baby well, even before birth.

Reduce Your Risk of the Flu

Getting the flu is no joke, so get a flu shot if you haven’t already done so. Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or visit a nearby urgent care center to discuss flu prevention or address flu symptoms. 

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