Colds During Pregnancy: Should You Worry?

Can catching a cold harm your growing baby? The truth, plus ways to avoid contagious viruses.

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Colds are never fun—least of all when you're already fatigued from growing a baby inside of you. And now, research finds another downside to having the sniffles when you're pregnant: Colds during pregnancy are linked to an increased risk of your baby developing asthma, says a 2014 study in Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Researchers followed more than 500 children from birth to age five, interviewing their parents during pregnancy and each year after birth. Kids whose mothers contracted more than three colds during pregnancy were twice as likely to develop asthma by five years old.

Experts aren't quite sure what may be responsible for this link, but there may be a larger genetic factor involved. (Some moms may have a gene that increases their risk of upper respiratory tract infections, and asthma in their children.)

So, contracting a cold during pregnancy isn't cause for crisis-mode, but it does raise a few questions. Here are some cold-hard facts, courtesy of Marjorie Greenfield, M.D., division chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

You're more susceptible to colds during pregnancy.

Your immune system doesn't work quite as well when you're pregnant to keep your body from fighting off the baby, so you may experience more colds than usual.

Consider it another reason to stay physically active: Regular exercise reduces the chances you'll get sick by about 29 percent, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (People in the study did moderate intensity cardio—like cycling—for 45 minutes most days of the week.)

And become even more vigilant about washing your hands with warm soap and water, especially after touching doorknobs, railings, or elevator buttons. Be sure to avoid touching your face— you can transfer viruses to a mucus membrane in your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Try natural remedies first.

Wondering what you can take for a cold while pregnant? The safest way to treat it is with natural remedies like resting and drinking liquids. Hot fluids, such as chicken soup or decaffeinated tea, can help ease congestion. Cold compresses may alleviate headaches and muscle pain.

If you're suffering from severe nasal congestion, use saline nose drops, which are considered safe at any stage of pregnancy. Buy drops at the pharmacy or make your own at home by mixing 1/4 teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of water. Put a few drops in each nostril, wait 10 minutes, and then blow your nose. Vicks VapoRub during pregnancy is also a good cure for a stuffy head. You can also invest in a steam vaporizer or humidifier.

You can (probably) take an OTC drug.

If natural approaches don’t relieve your cold, many over-the-counter cold medications are safe to take during pregnancy, but always check with your physician or midwife first. Then, read labels and choose medications that target the specific symptoms you're having. Otherwise, you could end up taking ingredients you don't really need.

The only safe over-the-counter drug for aches associated with colds is acetaminophen (the key ingredient in Tylenol), which has a well-established safety record in pregnancy. For severe congestion that does not respond to saline drops, your provider might also suggest a nasal spray.

For coughs, ask your provider about using a suppressant called dextromethorphan, which is found in Vicks Formula 44 and Robitussin. Avoid any cough suppressant that contains iodine; iodine can cause life-threatening thyroid problems in your baby. Steer clear of aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (the main painkiller in Motrin and Advil) and naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve). Studies have suggested that taking these medications in the first trimester can raise the risk of birth defects

Don't fool around with fevers and the flu.

Fevers are the one exception to the rule about trying non-medical approaches first. A fever at any point in your pregnancy, and especially during the first trimester, can put your baby at a higher risk of birth defects. Take Tylenol, and call your doctor or midwife immediately.

The flu can be more serious during pregnancy because it sometimes results in pneumonia. Flu shots are safe for both you and your baby at any stage of pregnancy, so get one now if your pregnancy falls during flu season. If you're diagnosed with the flu, ask your health care provider about Tamiflu, an antiviral that's usually safe for pregnant women. Keep in mind that tepid baths or showers can help bring down a fever, as can drinking cool beverages.

When to call the doctor for a cold during pregnancy.

There are a few reasons to call your healthcare provider right away:

  • If you come down with influenza. Your doctor might want to treat it with antiviral medications.
  • If your fever stays higher than 102 degrees after you take acetaminophen.
  • If you have trouble breathing.
  • If you feel contractions or if you see bleeding.
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