Why the Flu Is So Much Worse When You're Pregnant, According to Science

pregnant with flu
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If you've ever been pregnant, you know that even the slightest discomfort -- from an upset stomach to a case of the sniffles -- seems a hundred times worse, so something like the flu can be downright unbearable. And it's not just in your head: According to a new study, pregnant women do indeed suffer more severely from the flu (like, a lot more severely). 

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Basically, the problem is your immune system -- which pretty much turns into a traitor once there's a baby on board. You might think that it would make sense for your immune system to get stronger when you're pregnant, but it's actually the opposite: Your body, in its infinite wisdom, suppresses the immune system during pregnancy to protect the fetus, which is perceived by your system as an "intruder" because it's genetically different from you.  

Research published in Cell Host & Microbe found that this suppressed immunity not only creates a "window of opportunity" for the H1N1 influenza virus to infect moms, but it also helps the virus to very quickly (like, within a few days) mutate into a more "virulent" version of the flu. Sheesh! Nature is cruel.

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Granted, this study was conducted on mice, and the authors say more research is required to determine whether or not the same kind of viral mutations occur in humans, but previous studies have had similar results. In 2010, a World Health Organization analysis of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic found that pregnant women with the flu were a whopping seven times more likely to be hospitalized -- and twice as likely to die! -- than non-pregnant women. It's enough to make any mom-to-be want to seal herself off in a plastic bubble for the cold and flu season. 

As a mother of three, I can't imagine how horrible it would have been to come down with the flu while I was pregnant. If you've never had the flu, it's bad. It's so, so bad. It's a nightmarish hell of pain and fever and delirium that you fear you might never escape (and if you've never felt that way, you've probably never had the actual flu). The last time I had the flu, my temperature spiked to over 104 degrees -- I literally hallucinated! I couldn't get off my couch for nine solid days. Had I been pregnant, I most certainly would have ended up in the hospital. Instead, I just ended up ruining my kids' spring break. Sorry, guys.

More from CafeMom: 4 Myths About Pregnancy & the Flu Shot

Anyway, all of these studies and anecdotal evidence (including mine) seem to point to the same conclusion: It's really, really important for pregnant women to get the flu shot. 

"The best bet for pregnant women is to be vaccinated to prevent infection, because influenza viruses are very good at escaping," said co-lead author Gülsah Gabriel, a virologist at the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Hamburg, Germany.

Very good at escaping -- how creepy!

Seriously, though, pregnant women who get the flu are at a greater risk of having preterm birth, and fever from the flu can cause birth defects. So the consequences of getting the virus while you're expecting are even worse than having to spend a couple of weeks in bed feeling miserable -- even though, yes, that part is awful too!

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