What is flu?
Flu as commonly called is an upper airway infection with the influenza virus. There are several types and subtypes of flu viruses namely A, B, C, D. Type A & B are the commonest causes of seasonal flu.
The difference between the common cold and flu
The common cold is generally a mild illness. Some of the symptoms are similar to those of flu. The common symptoms between the two include a runny or blocked/stuffy nose and sneezing.
Flu symptoms are more severe such as a cough, sore throat, fever/chills, body aches, headaches, fatigue etc.
The common cold is frequently caused by a group of viruses called rhinoviruses (rhin means nose).
Risks associated with flu in pregnancy
Pregnant women are at risk of severe illness requiring hospitalization if they get infected with the influenza virus compared to non pregnant women. This is due to natural changes in the body that are associated with pregnancy.
The virus can cause infection in the lungs, the bloodstream, brain & heart. This can lead to generalised illness (sepsis), failure of many body organs and put the woman and baby’s life at risk.
The fever caused by the infection can cause abnormal development of the baby in the 1st trimester, preterm labour in the 2nd and 3rd trimester.
The virus can also cross the placenta and infect the baby.
It is common practice to not test for the cause of the upper airway infection. Therefore it is generally not possible to differentiate between flu and the common cold based on symptoms. As such the mainstay of treatment is supportive treatment to help ease the symptoms.
Viral infections generally resolve within 10 days with or without treatment. It is important to remember that antibiotics are used against bacteria, while antiviral medication is used against viruses. Antibiotics should therefore not be used in cases of upper airway infection where a virus is suspected to be the cause.
If the infection is confirmed to be due to Influenza virus, an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir can be used to prevent the virus from multiplying, therefore reducing the severity of the illness.
Medication is generally best avoided in pregnancy as there is very limited evidence of safety for most medications.
Fever, headache & body aches: Paracetamol
Blocked/stuffy nose: Saline nasal spray, if no effect ipratropium bromide nasal spray
Sore throat: Paracetamol
Cough: Guaifenesin, dextromethorphan products
- Flu vaccination is recommended and is safe in pregnancy
- It is important to stay at home when having symptoms of flu or the common cold to avoid spreading it to others
- Wash hands with soap and water, use an alcohol based hand rub frequently
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
- Cough and sneeze etiquette: Cough or sneeze in the elbow
- Stay away from people with symptoms of flu or the common cold
Other infections to look out for:
- Pertussis (whooping cough) : There has been a rise in pertussis infection in infants and neonates. This can be prevented by vaccination during pregnancy (mom gets vaccine) and beginning at 6 weeks for the baby.
Written by Dr Billy Magagula
MBChB (UL, Medunsa), DIP Obst (SA), DIP HIV Man (SA), MMED O&G (UP), FCOG (SA)