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Vaccinations Before and During Pregnancy

Chances are, the last thing on your to-do list right now is to check whether your immunizations are up to date. You probably don't even remember the last time you had a vaccination. But if you're pregnant or planning to conceive, it's time to give your immunization history some attention. Some vaccine-preventable infections, such as rubella, can pose a serious risk to your health and your unborn baby's. In other cases, vaccines themselves pose a risk of birth defects if they're given to expectant women. Here are the facts:

Your primary care doctor should have a record of all the immunizations you've received under his care. Forwarding this information to your obstetrician's office will help them determine which vaccines you'll need during pregnancy. You might also consider asking your parents whether they have your school immunization records or contacting your former pediatrician to see if he has any information. Certain illnesses don't require an additional vaccine in adulthood. Also, you may want to find out which childhood illnesses you've already had, such as chickenpox, because that usually guarantees immunity in adulthood. But even if you can't track down all of these records, your doctor can still protect your health with the shots he deems appropriate for you.

As a rule, pregnant women should not receive live virus vaccines, such as the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Even though they're made from germs that are weakened with chemicals, they could still harm an unborn baby. Vaccines made from dead viruses, such as a flu shot, are safe. Those made from toxoids, which are harmless, chemically altered proteins from a bacterium, are also safe, as are certain genetically engineered viruses. If pregnancy prevents you from getting your shots, get them afterward to be well prepared for your next baby.

The flu shot: If your second or third trimester coincides with flu season (October through February), you'll need a flu vaccination. When a pregnant woman comes down with the flu (especially in the second half of pregnancy), she is more likely than nonpregnant women to have severe symptoms or to contract a serious form of pneumonia and wind up in the hospital. Even a moderate case of the flu can cause a mountain of misery, such as fever, crushing headaches, muscles aches, sore throat, and cough. While the worst of these symptoms usually run their course in about four days, the cough and fatigue can drag on for two weeks or longer. Fortunately, this problem won't harm your baby. The best time to get a flu vaccine is in October or November, before the flu season is in full swing. The vaccine contains the three strains of viruses that are most likely to be circulating in the coming winter. Last year's flu shot isn't going to cut it; one or more of the strains of viruses that cause the illness change yearly, so you need protection each fall from that year's potential strains.

If you do come down with the flu, rush to bed, drink lots of fluids, and contact your health-care provider. Always alert your health-care provider if you're not feeling better after several days, if your cough worsens, or if you're having trouble breathing. These could be signs that you're developing complications and need further treatment.

Tetanus: This toxoid-based immunization is one you'll want to receive, especially if you haven't been immunized in the past 10 years.

Tetanus, or lockjaw -- so called because its first symptom is often stiffness in the jaw -- is a fatal disease of the central nervous system. It causes painful muscle spasms and severe convulsions. The bacterium, which is found in soil and in animal waste, can enter the bloodstream through a cut in the skin. The disease can cause fetal death when a pregnant woman is affected. If you get a dirty or deep wound, always check with your doctor immediately to see if you need a tetanus shot. This vaccine may also include protection from diphtheria, a dangerous respiratory infection.

Your job, lifestyle, or personal health may make you more susceptible to certain illnesses. As a result, your health-care provider may recommend some additional vaccines to protect you.

Hepatitis B: If you're a health-care worker or day-care worker, or live with someone infected with hepatitis B, you should seriously consider being vaccinated with this genetically engineered vaccine. Hepatitis B is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and many other distressing symptoms, including nausea, fatigue, and jaundice. In some cases, it can cause chronic liver disease, cancer, and death. A pregnant woman with hepatitis B can pass the infection on to her baby during labor and delivery. If this happens, the baby is at high risk of contracting serious liver diseases as an adult.

Hepatitis A: There's also a vaccine for hepatitis A, another form of the disease that is usually spread via contaminated food or water. Its health ramifications are not as serious as those of hepatitis B, and the illness usually does not affect an unborn baby. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, and nausea. Occasionally, however, hepatitis A can contribute to premature labor and fetal death. If you live in an area where this virus is common, such as the West Coast or the Southwest, or if you're planning to visit a developing country, ask your doctor about the vaccine, which is made from killed viruses.

Polio: You've probably received a polio vaccine, and this central nervous system disease has been extremely rare in the United States for the past two decades. However, if you plan on visiting India, Southeast Asia, or Africa, you may need a polio booster shot, which is made from a killed virus. (If you've already received a vaccine, booster shots are small, additional doses used to keep your immunity at the proper level.)

Pneumococcus: If you have a lung condition, such as asthma, your doctor may recommend the genetically engineered pneumococcal vaccine, which prevents some forms of pneumonia.

Though it may seem as if you'll be seeing a lot of needles in the near future, relax. Your doctor will ensure that you get the right immunization for your health and lifestyle.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other heatlth professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding you won health or the health of others.