Health And Wellness

What It Means If You Have Flu-Like Symptoms During Early Pregnancy

Photo: getty images
woman laying across a bed

Flu symptoms are never fun, and when they happen during early pregnancy (a time when women are already feeling fatigued and stressed), it can be especially alarming.

While flu vaccination shots are generally considered safe for both a pregnant woman and her unborn child, nasal flu vaccinations are not.

Women may experience flu-like symptoms in early pregnancy for a variety of reasons.

RELATED: 4 Reasons Why Being Pregnant & Having A Baby Is Way Less Scary & Intimidating Than It Sounds

There is a fair amount of overlap between early pregnancy symptoms and flu symptoms.

Pregnancy is a time of altered immune status, so being pregnant may increase your risk of acquiring infectious diseases such as the flu.

“If you are pregnant and feel flu-like, be sure to get checked for infection. Anything anyone can catch can affect a pregnant woman. You could have the flu, a cold, mono, hepatitis, or other infection,” warns Felice Gersh, MD, author of "PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist's Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness."

Why do pregnant women experience so many flu-like symptoms? It's because the body is stressed.

Here's a breakdown of 11 flu-like symptoms early pregnancy can cause and why.

1. Stuffy or runny nose

This is one of the less well-known medical issues women encounter during pregnancy, but 20% of pregnant women experience pregnancy/gestational rhinitis.

"Although the exact cause of these symptoms has yet to be determined," says the healthcare team at Emma's Diary, "the thinking is that elevated levels of certain hormones, including placental growth hormone, progesterone and oestrogen, are involved. Increases in these hormones are thought to cause the blood vessels and mucous membranes in your nose to swell and increase the activity of your glands, producing more mucous and nasal congestion."

Pregnancy rhinitis occurs without a cough, sore throat, swollen glands or high fever associated with the flu, as well as without the itchy eyes, nose and throat brought on by seasonal allergies.

2. Headache, body aches, cramping, and back pain

We often get achy all over when we have the flu, but headaches, body aches, cramping, and pain are also all considered normal during early pregnancy. 

These symptoms are related to an increase in blood volume, but if the headaches become too intense or too regular, it's something you should discuss with your doctor, just to be safe.

3. Fever and/or chills

Flu-related fevers usually run somewhere above 104˚F (38˚C). During ovulation, a woman's basal body temperature increases by about half a degree Fahrenheit (0.3 degrees Celcius), then remains elevated if she becomes pregnant.

Even with this increase in temperature, it's unlikely to hit as high a number as it would if you have the flu, so be sure to check with your doctor, especially if it goes above 102˚F.

4. Nausea and vomiting

Sure, we equate nausea and vomiting with the flu, but both are also a natural part of morning sickness.

If you have a general feeling of being nauseated, there's a fair chance it's due to your pregnancy and the flu isn't to blame.

5. Diarrhea

Both the flu and pregnancy come with their fair share of gastrointestinal issues.

In pregnancy, diarrhea and constipation are side effects of hormonal changes. Doctors are still unclear as to why the flu causes diarrhea, though some speculate it may be part of the body's effort to rid itself of offending germs.

RELATED: The Truth Behind The Top 10 Pregnancy Myths

6. Fatigue

Your body is going through a lot, after all.

“We really do not know exactly why," says Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine. "I do tell my patients when they feel fatigued to think of it as 'sleeping for two.'”

7. Mood swings

It's pretty much a given that pregnant women will experience mood swings, but this could be the case with the flu as well.

"Because psychiatric distress is associated with inflammation, and because the flu puts your body in a highly inflammatory state, it is likely that this inflammatory state worsens the body’s psyche," says Steven Schlozman M.D. "That’s probably why these psychiatric symptoms improve with Tylenol or Ibuprofen or other methods by which the inflammatory system can be cooled."

8. Dizziness and fainting

If you experience dizziness and fainting during the flu, it's likely caused by dehydration.

During pregnancy, dizziness and fainting are more likely to be brought about due to drops in blood pressure.

This is one of the few symptoms of early pregnancy that is not usually considered normal, as most "almost all cases of hypertension within the first 20 weeks indicate underlying problems," so please call your doctor.

9. Increased heart rate

Inflammation of the heart may be another of the body's responses to the flu, resulting in chest pain, deep breathing, and a rapid heart rate.

During pregnancy, a woman's heart rate speeds up because the heart has more work to do as it pumps more blood to her uterus.

10. Bloating

Once again, those pesky hormones are to blame for bloating and gassiness during pregnancy.

When a flu is the culprit, it's typically because of a stomach flu (aka gastroenteritis). The stomach flu Is a bacterial infection, whereas influenza, the version most of us think of when we talk about "the flu," is caused by a virus.

RELATED: COVID-19 Signs, Symptoms, Strains, & Treatments, According To A Medical Doctor

11. Missed periods

Missing your period during pregnancy is to be expected. But the flu also has the ability to throw your menstrual cycle out of whack.

"Any time you are really sick, it can throw your cycle off track," says Dr. Molly O’Shea. "A cold isn’t usually enough to [mess] things up, but a flu with high fever for a few days or lots of vomiting and diarrhea can make your body think that you aren’t well enough to get pregnant. So your body might delay or prevent ovulation for that cycle. Your body is pretty smart."

How to Tell if You're Pregnant or Have the Flu

When the symptoms above are caused by pregnancy rather than by the flu, they usually resolve by the end of the first trimester.

Symptoms of the flu not typically associated with early pregnancy may include sore throat, cough, and a weakened sense of taste and smell.

Early pregnancy symptoms not typically associated with the flu include frequent urination, constipation, heightened sense of smell and taste, heartburn, and breast soreness and/or swelling.

However, as Dr. Minkin says, “If you do feel persistently flu-like symptoms, especially if you have a fever, check in with your OB/GYN, because the real flu can be serious during pregnancy.”

You can take Vitamin C to boost your immune system during flu season to help.

The CDC recommends all pregnant women receive the flu shot/vaccine at any time during pregnancy to avoid complications the virus may cause.

Important note: Given how little we know about COVID-19 at this point, please be sure to consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

You can also visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for more information.

RELATED: This Weird Change In Your Toes Could Mean You Have Coronavirus

Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyle writer whose work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Find her on Twitter or email her for more information.