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What are colds and flu?
A cold is an infection of the upper respiratory (breathing) tract caused by a virus. Colds usually get better on their own, without taking specific treatment like antibiotics.
Influenza, or 'the flu', is a viral infection that can cause symptoms similar to the common cold — but can also cause serious complications if you're pregnant.
What are the symptoms of colds and flu?
A cold can affect your throat and airways and cause symptoms, such as:
- sore throat
- sneezing and cough
- blocked or runny nose
- mild fever
Symptoms of the flu include some of the symptoms of a cold, but also some whole body symptoms, including:
- sore throat
- severe tiredness
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
How do I manage a cold when I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
Colds can be very uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous to you or your baby.
There are things you can do to treat your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable while your body fights the virus:
- Resting gives your body more energy to fight the infection.
- Drink lots of fluids — this will help you feel better and is important for your milk supply when you are breastfeeding.
- Avoid dehydration, which can be dangerous in pregnancy — warm drinks with lemon and honey can be especially soothing.
- Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke.
- Use saline (salt water) nasal sprays or rinses to clear mucus from your nose and sinuses.
- Inhale steam (using a bowl of hot water, or a warm shower) to help clear your nose and sinuses.
You should continue to breastfeed your baby if you have a cold or the flu so that your baby gets antibodies from your breast milk, which may protect them from getting sick.
How do I manage the flu when I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
Most people who catch the flu start to notice symptoms about 1 to 3 days after being in contact with someone carrying the virus.
If you are pregnant and think you might have the flu, you should see your doctor right away. If you are pregnant, especially if you are in your second or third trimester, you are more likely to become seriously unwell with the flu than people who are not pregnant.
If your doctor suspects you have the flu, they may take a swab from the inside of your nose and throat to confirm the diagnosis. They may also prescribe you an antiviral medicine if they are concerned about the effects of the flu on your health. This medicine is more effective the earlier you take it, so it's important to see your doctor when you first notice flu symptoms.
There are also strategies you can use to relieve your symptoms while you recover. These strategies are similar to those used to treat cold symptoms.
As with a cold, you should continue to breastfeed your baby if you have the flu so that they get antibodies from your breast milk, which may protect them from getting sick.
Is the flu dangerous during pregnancy?
If you are pregnant, the flu can be dangerous for you and for your baby.
If you are pregnant, you are more likely to catch the flu, and you are more likely to experience severe symptoms and complications. Even if you are healthy and your pregnancy is normal, catching the flu can cause life-threatening complications.
Complications of the flu in pregnancy include:
Can I get the flu vaccine during pregnancy or while breastfeeding?
Yes. The flu vaccine is the best way to protect both you and your baby from catching the flu. The flu vaccine is recommended at any stage of pregnancy, as well as for anyone planning a pregnancy, or anyone who is breastfeeding.
It is safe to have the flu vaccine in pregnancy and while breastfeeding. It is free in any trimester during pregnancy through the National Immunisation Program.
You should get vaccinated against the flu even if you were already vaccinated last year. This is because the flu vaccine is updated every year to give you the most protection from the type of influenza that is expected to be common that year.
What medicines can I take while I'm pregnant?
During pregnancy, you may have conditions that need treatment with medicines. Some medicines are not safe to use during pregnancy.
If you are pregnant, it's important to speak to your doctor or pharmacist before starting, stopping or changing any prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
Here are some common medicines and information about their use, during pregnancy.
- Paracetamol is considered safe at all stages of pregnancy.
- Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should not be used during pregnancy unless your doctor has prescribed them.
- Some cough medicines are safe during pregnancy, but not all types. If you are pregnant and feel very unwell with cold symptoms, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
- Saline nasal sprays are safe to use during pregnancy. Decongestant nasal sprays (used to relieve a blocked nose) are generally safe to use during pregnancy – check with you pharmacist for advice.
- Oral decongestant medicines, such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are not recommended during pregnancy.
There is limited scientific information about many herbal or complementary products or medicines and their safety during pregnancy. If you are thinking about using herbal medicines during pregnancy, it's a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist about their safety before you take them.
What medicines can I take while I'm breastfeeding?
If you need to take medicines while you are breastfeeding, check with your doctor or pharmacist that they are safe for you and your baby. Even when your medicine is considered safe during breastfeeding, it is best to breastfeed your baby before you take your medicine.
While you are breastfeeding, it's especially important to maintain good hygiene to reduce the chance of spreading the infection to your baby and other members of your household.
Here are some common medicines and some information about their use while you're breastfeeding.
- Paracetamol may be used while breast feeding at the recommended dose.
- Ibuprofen is generally safe to use in breastfeeding. If you are taking other medicines or have other health conditions, speak with your doctor about using ibuprofen in your circumstance.
- Aspirin is not to be used for pain or fever if you are breastfeeding.
- Codeine may make your baby drowsy, especially in young or small babies, and if you have a family history of codeine sensitivity. Codeine is found in many cold and flu tablets. If your baby becomes more drowsy than usual after you have taken codeine, stop using it and speak to your doctor.
- Pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are decongestants found in some cold and flu tablets. These are not recommended while breastfeeding as they can reduce your milk supply.
- Saline nasal sprays are safe to use while you are breastfeeding. Decongestant nasal sprays (medicines that relieve a blocked nose) with the active ingredients oxymetazoline and xylometazoline can be used while you're breastfeeding because they transfer poorly into breast milk, and work in the nose.
There is limited scientific information about many herbal or complementary products or medicines and their safety while breastfeeding. If you are breastfeeding and want to use herbal medicine, check with your doctor or pharmacist about their safety and effectiveness before you do.
Resources and support
For more information on influenza during pregnancy:
- speak to your doctor, midwife or pharmacist
- visit the Department of Health and Aged Care to learn more about influenza during pregnancy
- information is also available in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Tagalog, Greek, Punjabi, Italian, Hindi, Korean and Vietnamese
- the Royal Women's Hospital offers several fact sheets including on:
- the Royal Hospital for Women's leaflet on the common cold in pregnancy and breastfeeding offers non-drug treatment options, as well as safe drug choices and complimentary therapy alternatives.
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Speak to a maternal child health nurse
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Last reviewed: June 2023