February 1, 2024

Flu-Free Motherhood: Navigating Flu Season Safely for Expectant Moms

black mom pregnant with doctor at computer

By Katherine Palmer, SWHR Science Policy Fellow 

In the United States, influenza (flu) season typically occurs in the fall and winter months. While its overall impact varies from year to year, flu infections can lead to hospitalizations and deaths for people of all ages. However, these severe outcomes tend to be more prevalent in high-risk groups, such as pregnant people 

The flu vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect people from infection. The vaccine is updated to target the latest versions of the virus each season. Becoming sick with flu while pregnant can be dangerous for both the pregnant person and their baby. The flu virus is more likely to cause illness that results in hospitalization in pregnant people than in people of similar age who are not pregnant. Additionally, pregnant persons have seven times the risk of hospitalization from flu. Flu infection during pregnancy can also lead to an increased risk of maternal health complications such as stillbirth, preterm birth, and lower birth weight. Furthermore, infants younger than six months of age are at increased risk of developing complications from flu, and have the highest risk of being hospitalized from flu compared to children of other ages. The protection offered by flu vaccines is important for a pregnant individual and their baby’s health both during and after pregnancy.  

After receiving the flu vaccine, healthy people develop robust antibodies to the flu that provide protection from infection and severe flu outcomes. The seasonal flu vaccine is also the most effective way to protect pregnant individuals from severe flu complications and offers some protection to their baby as well (flu antibodies will cross the placenta and can provide up to six months of flu protection for the baby after birth).  Of note, seasonal flu vaccines can reduce the risk of flu in pregnant people by half.  Flu vaccination during pregnancy has been associated with a 48% reduced risk of infants having flu infection and 72% reduced risk of hospitalization related to the flu.  

Flu vaccines are safe during pregnancy and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization. Flu vaccines have been administered to millions of pregnant people for over 50 years with an excellent safety record.  

Yet, despite what we know about the risk of the flu for pregnant populations and the effectiveness of the vaccine, flu vaccine uptake in this population still lags. In the 2022-2023 flu season only 47.2% of women in the United States received the flu vaccine, despite being a high priority group for the flu vaccine.  

A reminder to health care providers: The strongest predictor of receiving a flu vaccination during pregnancy is a trusted recommendation from a patient’s health care provider. Talk to your pregnant patients or patients thinking of becoming pregnant about the importance of getting their flu vaccines today. 

If you are interested in getting your flu shot, talk to your health care provider or find a flu vaccination site near you. As preventive health care, flu vaccines are covered by both private insurance and Medicaid, making them more affordable for more people. Community clinics and local health departments may also offer free or low-cost flu vaccines for individuals who do not have insurance.