Germs may be tripping over themselves to get to your bump, but this survival guide will help you beat them back.
“I hadn’t had a cold in years, but when I was pregnant, I got a terrible one that lasted two weeks,” says Shannon M. Clark, M.D., an OB/GYN at UTMB Health in Galveston, Texas. “Growing a human inside of you takes a lot of your body’s energy, so it’s harder for you to kick a cold.” As if morning sickness and indigestion weren’t enough, expecting women also have an increased risk of catching a cold or the flu. When you’ve got a baby on board, your immune system is weaker than normal. That’s actually a good thing, says Dr. Clark, because it keeps your body from rejecting your baby-to-be, but it also means you’re more vulnerable to germs. Picking up a virus won’t just make you feel miserable; if it’s not treated properly, it can also be dangerous. Pregnant women who get the flu are at a higher risk of complications and even death. What’s more, if you have the flu early in your pregnancy, it can double your risk of having a baby born with a serious birth defect, according to the March of Dimes. All serious stuff. To avoid any germs that may be stalking you, follow these rules to protect yourself and your sweet nugget.
Get a Flu Shot
If you haven’t had your jab yet, it’s not too late. The flu vaccine is safe no matter what trimester you’re in. In fact, women who get the shot have a lower rate of preterm birth compared with those who don’t, says Aaron B. Caughey, M.D., Ph.D., an OB/GYN at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “If you don’t want to get immunized for your own good, do it for your baby,” he emphasizes. “Your immunity will protect your baby for about six months after he’s born.” That’s an important benefit, because severe complications of inf luenza are most common in children younger than 2 years old.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Sure, it’s tough to get a full night’s rest when you’re stuck trying to stay on your left side and you’re waking up three or more times to pee. Give it your best shot anyway by dimming lights and avoiding bright screens before you turn in. Sleep restores your mind and body, making you better able to fight off cold and flu viruses. A Carnegie Mellon study found that those who sleep fewer than seven hours a night are nearly three times more likely to get a cold than those who average eight or more hours of slumber.
Go Hard on Handwashing
This is not the time to get away with a quickie swipe under the faucet. Use soap and spend at least 20 seconds lathering and washing your hands from your fingertips to your wrists, explains Harley Rotbart, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and author of Miracles We Have Seen. “It’s longer than you think,” he says. “Go through one round of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ while you scrub.” Wash your hands every time you use the bathroom, after you’ve spent time in a public place, and before you grab anything to eat. If someone in your home is sick, and especially if you’re handling the eating utensils or laundry of any sick family member, hit the sink more often.
Always Dry Your Hands
The surface tension created when you dry your hands helps remove microorganisms, Dr. Rotbart says. “If you leave the sink with your hands dripping, you’re leaving some germs on your hands, and now you’ve fed them some moisture to keep them happy,” he says. When faced with a choice, disposable paper towels are slightly more hygienic than commercial hand dryers. Avoid cloth towels that have been used by people who are sick; shared towels collect germs. You can also protect yourself in public places by holding a paper towel in your hands when you turn off faucets and open bathroom doors.
Carry Your Own Pen
Every object you touch that has been handled by other people is a potential germ hot spot, including the pen you may use to sign a credit card receipt, says Neil Schachter, M.D., author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. Railings, doorknobs, elevator buttons, shopping-cart handles, credit-card readers, and ATM machines also harbor microorganisms that can make you sick. Wipe down surfaces when possible, and wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, after you’ve touched something others have handled.
Don’t Touch Your Face
While it’s true that some microorganisms go airborne when people cough or sneeze, you’re most likely to get sick because you have germs on your hands that you’ve acquired from someone or something, and you give them access by touching your face. The average person unconsciously touches her mouth or nose about three times per hour, according to one study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. “If you have germs on your hands and then you eat, rub your eyes, bite your nails, or put your fingers in or near your nose, you’re helping the germs get in,” explains Dr. Rotbart. It’s better to keep your hands in your pockets!
As long as your doctor says it’s okay, engaging in moderately intense workouts while you’re pregnant will give your immune system a boost. In one study, women who regularly got moving cut in half their risk of catching a cold or the flu. In another, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, researchers found a 30 to 60 percent reduced risk among women who exercise. “We’re not talking high-intensity exercise here,” Dr. Schachter says. “Too much of it depresses the immune system. The magic number seems to be 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times a week.” And here’s a bonus benefit: Regular, moderate workouts during pregnancy are also associated with a shorter labor and delivery.