Pneumonia during pregnancy: What you need to know
In many people, pneumonia begins with a common cold or flu, which then spreads to the lungs. Pneumonia can be life-threatening if left untreated, and pregnant women are more vulnerable to complications.
Learn to recognize the symptoms and help prevent maternal pneumonia. Anyone who suspects they might have maternal pneumonia should contact their doctor as soon as symptoms appear.
Symptoms of pneumonia may include a fever or cough that worsens.
It is important to be familiar with the symptoms of pneumonia during pregnancy and seek treatment immediately. Common symptoms include:
- cold and flu-like symptoms, such as a sore throat, a headache, and body aches
- difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- extreme tiredness
- a fever or having chills
- chest pain
- a cough that worsens
Complications for the mother and baby
Pneumonia is a severe illness and can cause dangerous complications for both the woman and baby if left untreated.
Maternal pneumonia can cause the body's oxygen levels to fall as the lungs are unable to catch and direct enough oxygen out to the rest of the body. This means that reduced levels of oxygen can get to the uterus to support the baby.
The original infection can also spread from the lungs to other parts of the body, such as the bloodstream.
In severe cases, pneumonia during pregnancy can cause:
- premature birth
- low birth weight
Many women worry that too much coughing could be dangerous for the baby. However, the baby is surrounded by amniotic fluid, which works as a shock absorber and protects them from coughing, vibrations, noises, pressure, and minor knocks.
Pregnant women who spend long periods of time in hospitals may be at increased risk of pneumonia.
Being pregnant increases a woman risk of developing pneumonia because the body puts lots of energy into supporting the baby in the womb, suppressing the immune system.
The growing baby and uterus also reduce a woman's lung capacity, which puts more stress on lung function.
Pneumonia is most likely to occur as the result of a bacterial infection that spreads to the lungs. Bacteria that commonly cause pneumonia include:
- Haemophilus influenza
- Mycoplasma pneumonia
- Streptococcus pneumonia
Viral infections and complications that also cause pneumonia include:
Women are at a higher risk of contracting pneumonia when pregnant if they:
- smoke tobacco
- have anemia
- have asthma
- have a chronic illness
- have a job that involves working with young children
- spend prolonged periods of time in hospitals or nursing homes
- have a weakened immune system
Treatment for maternal pneumonia will depend on whether a virus or bacteria caused the infection.
Most treatments for viral pneumonia are considered safe to use during pregnancy, and catching pneumonia at an early stage means anti-viral medication will usually eliminate the illness. A doctor may also recommend respiratory therapy.
If a person has bacterial pneumonia, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen, can also help reduce a fever and manage pain. It is essential to speak to a doctor first about which over-the-counter medications are safe to use during pregnancy.
Getting lots of rest and keeping hydrated will also help speed up recovery.
When to see a doctor
As soon as a pregnant woman experiences symptoms of pneumonia, she should contact her doctor. Doing so will lower the risk of complications.
In addition to asking about any symptoms, a doctor may:
- listen to the lungs with a stethoscope
- take an X-ray of the lungs
- take a sputum sample
Pneumonia may require treatment in the hospital if it is severe. If a pregnant woman experiences the following symptoms, she should call 911 or the local emergency number immediately:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- a high fever (100.3°F or higher) severe vomiting that lasts over 12 hours
Pregnant women should contact their doctor's office if they have other symptoms, including:
- feeling faint or dizzy
- a cough, sore throat, congestion, earaches
- low-grade fevers or chills
- body aches
- feeling confused
- the baby moving less than normal
- pelvic pain or cramping
- vaginal bleeding or loss of fluid
Eating a variety of nutritious foods may help to minimize the risk of developing pneumonia during pregnancy.
There are several ways to minimize the risk of contracting pneumonia, including:
- frequent hand-washing
- getting enough rest
- eating a varied and nutritious diet
- exercising regularly
- avoiding contact with sick people
- not smoking
Pregnant women are also advised to have the flu vaccine to protect against influenza infection. It is recommended to get the vaccine before flu season begins in October.
The flu vaccine can also protect the baby from the flu after birth. This protection may last until the baby is 6 months old.
Anyone who develops a cold or flu during pregnancy should tell their doctor as soon as possible. Getting advice from a doctor can help prevent illnesses from developing into pneumonia.
Pregnant women are more susceptible to pneumonia than the general population. However, preventing complications is possible by catching and treating the illness early.
While the risk of life-threatening complications in pregnant women with pneumonia is higher when compared with those who are not pregnant, it is still low.
These risks have lowered significantly in recent years because of:
- quick diagnoses
- antimicrobial therapy (which kills or prevents microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, or protozoans, from growing)
- intensive care
Most women who receive treatment quickly do not experience complications and will have a healthy pregnancy and newborn.