For some of us, breathing easy is easier said than done. About 10 percent of women of childbearing age have allergies, and about 4 to 7 percent have asthma. If you're one of them, you're probably wondering how your condition -- or the medications you take to treat it -- will affect your unborn baby. Fortunately, there are lots of safe ways to ease your sneezing and wheezing during pregnancy without harming your fetus. Here's how.
What Are Allergies?
When your immune system senses a threat, such as harmful bacteria or a virus, it responds by releasing powerful chemicals such as histamines to attack and destroy it. An allergy develops when there is an immune system response to an otherwise harmless substance, such as pollen or animal dander. The result is allergy symptoms -- sniffling, sneezing, itching, or wheezing, just to name a few.
What Am I Allergic To?
If you suffer from nasal congestion, sneezing, a runny nose, coughing, or watery eyes between the months of April and October, you're probably allergic to the wide variety of plant pollens that fly through the air during these months. Misery loves company: at least 10 percent of all adults and children in the U.S. suffer such symptoms when pollen is in the air.
But even if the so-called sneezing season is over, you may have many allergens lurking in your home too, leading to year-round distress. Common culprits are mold, dust, dust mites, roaches, and pet dander. While allergies will not harm you or your unborn baby, they can add to your discomfort at a time when you may not be feeling great to begin with -- especially if you're in your first trimester or late third trimester.
Can I Prevent Allergies?
Your first line of defense against allergy symptoms should be to try and avoid contact with the allergens themselves. For example, if you're allergic to pollen, you should keep your windows closed and avoid outdoor activities in the morning, when the pollen count is usually at its highest.
If your symptoms stem from sources inside your home, use a mask when vacuuming, keep your bedroom free of pets, and encase pillows and mattresses in plastic covers to avoid dust mites. Dust mites flourish when your home is humid. To control their numbers, use a dehumidifier to keep the humidity in your home below 50 percent.
If avoidance isn't enough, you can try using a saline nasal spray to help ease congestion. But if your allergies are severe enough to interfere with your eating or sleeping, you may want to talk to your doctor about using medication, as there are a number of allergy medications that can safely provide relief during your last six months of pregnancy.
Are There Medications I Can Safely Take?
Commonly prescribed medications include antihistamines and decongestants. Many doctors believe that chlorpheniramine, the active ingredient in Chlor-Trimeton, is among the safest antihistamines.
If you need a decongestant, many doctors recommend oxymetazoline, which comes in nasal spray or drop form, such as Afrin. Your system absorbs little, if any, of the drug when you take it nasally, making it a good choice for pregnant women. Nasal sprays containing cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom) are also safe.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a serious respiratory condition in which the airways become narrowed. Symptoms include wheezing, chest constriction, and shortness of breath, and are triggered by environmental factors, such as common allergens, cold air, exercise, strong odors (such as paint), and infections. When you come into contact with an asthma trigger, your airways become inflamed, tighten up, and produce excess mucus, which leads to asthma symptoms.
Can Asthma Medication Hurt My Unborn Baby?
As long as your asthma remains well controlled, it shouldn't affect your unborn baby's health. Fortunately, most asthma medications are safe to use during pregnancy. Many women with milder asthma can control their symptoms with an inhaled bronchodilator spray. Sprays containing terbutaline sulfate (the ingredient in Brethaire and others), metaproterenol (Alupent and others), and albuterol (Ventolin and others) are considered safe in pregnancy. Women with moderate or severe asthma may require treatment with an anti-inflammatory spray, such as cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom), or an inhaled steroid, such as beclomethasone (Beclovent, Vanceril, and others).
Women with severe asthma that can't be controlled with inhaled medications may need to take an oral steroid, such as prednisone, until symptoms are controlled. These drugs appear to be safe for unborn babies.
What If I Have an Asthma Attack During Pregnancy?
It's important to do everything you can to control your asthma. Poorly controlled asthma can lead to reduced oxygen levels for the fetus, increasing the risk of slowed growth and low birth weight. It can also contribute to health issues such as preeclampsia, stillbirth, and placental problems.
In addition to medication, it's vital to take steps to avoid flare-ups in the first place, so talk to your health-care provider about developing a strategy.
Can I Prevent Asthma Attacks?
Just as with allergies, your first line of defense against asthma attacks should be to avoid exposure to asthma triggers. Also reduce your exposure to common allergens, and make sure to stop smoking and to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, another common asthma culprit.
Be sure to get a flu shot in October or November, as the flu can trigger episodes as well. By avoiding these irritants, you may be able to reduce your need for medication.
Could I Have an Attack During Labor?
Asthma flare-ups are uncommon during labor and delivery. But when they do occur, they can be readily controlled with medication. It's nothing that you should worry about.
Copyright © 2010 Meredith Corporation.
For More Information
For additional tips and advice on managing asthma and allergies during your pregnancy, be sure to read:
- The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments of Allergies and Asthma
- Get Smart About Asthma
- Predict Your Child's Health Future