Why the flu shot is important during pregnancy

Pregnant mother and daughter

The weather has dropped to single digits and in some parts of Ontario it has dipped to negative temperatures. The trees are starting to look bare and the wind is blowing more than just leaves. It’s starting to look a lot like flu season and as many people are out getting vaccinated against influenza, a vulnerable group of people not getting their flu shot may be at a higher risk.

“The body undergoes significant physiologic changes during pregnancy,” says Dr. Joey Latino, a Paediatrician in the Maternal, Newborn and Paediatric Care Department at North York General Hospital (NYGH). “The immune system is altered to prevent it from attacking the developing baby. But this also means that during pregnancy people are more likely to become very sick from the flu if they are infected.”

Dr. Joey Latino
Dr. Joey Latino

Dr. Latino explains that pregnancy itself places extra stress on one's organs, including the heart and lungs. Getting sick with the flu can put additional strain on these vital organs to the point that they can’t keep up with the demands of the body. Combined with an altered immune system, this places those who are pregnant and their babies at high risk of becoming very sick, getting hospitalized, having a premature labour and delivery, anatomic abnormalities, or even dying from the flu. This can happen in healthy people and especially in those with chronic disease, like asthma or diabetes, who may have less reserve.

Reports in the media are predicting that this year’s flu season will hit our vulnerable population, babies and seniors, the hardest. “Getting the flu shot is the best line of defence against influenza for everyone,” says Maja McGuire, Director of Infection Prevention and Control and Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness at NYGH. “Practicing good hand hygiene and getting vaccinated will help keep individuals who are pregnant and their babies safe throughout flu season. The vaccine helps the person’s immune system produce antibodies, which will fight the flu and will protect their baby for months after they’re born. Babies older than six months can also get the flu shot.”

What you can do to protect your baby from influenza after delivery

In order to protect the youngest member of the family, Dr. Latino says that all household members should be given the flu shot. “Additional strategies to protect a baby born during flu season, typically October to March, include vigilant hand washing by anyone in contact with the infant,” says Dr. Latino. “Friends and family who are sick or feeling unwell should be asked to visit only when they are completely well and recovered. Yes, even that eager aunt or grandfather who can’t wait to meet the newest addition to the family – ask them to stay away until they are better on the doctor’s orders!”

There are also a lot of myths online about the flu vaccine and Dr. Latino dispels the main one he hears often: “The flu vaccine does not give you the flu. The low grade fever or malaise you may feel afterwards is due to an immune response to the vaccine. This is good! It means that your body is responding to the vaccine and building the immunity it needs to fight against the real influenza virus, if and when the time comes.”

According to Toronto Public Health, the flu shot takes two weeks for the vaccine to boost your immunity. Now is a good time to start to protect your immune system. “How well the flu vaccine works can vary from season to season and person to person, but having some protection is always better than none,” explains Maja.

Patients and visitors can get their free flu shot at North York General's Pharmacy at the General site (4001 Leslie Street). Please bring your OHIP card.

Pharmacy hours:
Monday to Friday:
8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sat. and Sunday:
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Pulse.

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