What Can I Take for a Cold During Pregnancy?

Simple Tips to Protect Yourself and Your Baby

Pregnant woman resting
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While there is never really a good time to have a cold or flu, having one during pregnancy is arguably among the worst. But, in truth, it's not all that uncommon a situation given that an immune system will be sometimes weak during pregnancy.

When faced with a seasonal cold or flu, you will need to consider not only your baby's health but your own. While there are certainly drugs you will need to avoid, suffering needlessly neither helps you nor your baby.

Here are a few tips that may help:

Treating a Cold or Flu in Early Pregnancy

As a general rule, if you have a cold or flu in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, you should avoid all medications. The first trimester is a critical time in your baby's development, and most doctors will advise against exposing the fetus to any drug unless absolutely needed.

This is not to suggest that all drugs have a potential for harm. In many cases, they don't. But, in others, we simply don't know. For this reason alone, a drug-free policy should be adhered to for at least the first 12 weeks.

Instead, you should make every effort to help your body recover by slowing down, resting, and avoiding stresses that can affect the immune system. You can do this by:

  • Staying in bed, napping, and get as much rest as possible
  • Drinking plenty of water, broth, or juice
  • Gargling with salt water to treat sore throats and cough
  • Sucking on ice chips to alleviate sore throats and keep hydrated
  • Using a humidifier to help relieve congestion
  • Eating smaller, healthy meals more frequently
  • Taking your perinatal vitamins

Types of Cold Medications to Consider

Even after the initial 12 weeks, it is best to speak with your doctor about the type and brand of cold medications you can take. Typically speaking, you should avoid any multi-symptom product which could contain everything from painkillers and decongestants to expectorants and cough suppressants.

Instead, get the drug to treat the symptom you're experiencing. There are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs considered safe for this:

  • Anesthetic cough drops such as Chloraseptic or Cepacol lozenges
  • Expectorants containing guaifenesin to help clear mucus
  • Alcohol-free cough syrups containing dextromethorphan, such as Tussin DM
  • Combination guaifenesin/dextromethorphan drugs
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen) to treat fever and minor aches and pains
  • Menthol rubs such as Vick's or Mentholatum ointment

When buying any OTC cold or flu remedy, always read the label completely. In some cases, there may be ingredients you will want to avoid or those irrelevant to the symptoms you are experiencing.

Common Medications to Avoid

Knowing what not to take is almost more important than knowing which are safe. To this end, there are a number of medications to avoid while pregnant unless recommended by your doctor. These include:

  • Nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), aspirin (Bayer), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) which can sometimes cause a blood vessel linked the baby's heart to close prematurely
  • Any cold remedy containing alcohol, including Benadryl and Nyquil
  • Codeine, a narcotic drug which may cause fetal respiratory depression
  • Bactrim, an antibiotic which can interfere with folic acid production while stimulating bilirubin production, both of which are not good for the baby
  • Pseudoephedrine- and phenylephrine-based decongestants, both of which may cause the constriction of the uterine arteries during the first trimester

If your cold or flu is severe and you are experiencing chest pains, are coughing up discolored mucus, or have a fever over 102o F, call your doctor immediately.

Sources:

Briggs, G. and Freeman. R. (2014) Drugs in Pregnancy and Lactation: A Reference Guide to Fetal and Neonatal Risk (10th Edition). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Honein, M.; Gilboa, S; and Broussard, C. "The Need for Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy." Expert Rev Clin Pharmacol. 2013; 6(5):453-55.

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