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Pneumonia and pregnancy

Pregnant woman in a white dress sitting on her bed with a glass of orange juice
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Pneumonia is a condition that affects the lungs, causing coughing, a fever, and difficulty breathing. For many people, the symptoms are mild enough that they can be managed at home, but for some, pneumonia requires hospital care.

In pregnancy, there can be a higher risk of pneumonia. This is because being pregnant naturally weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illness.

If pneumonia progresses and causes complications, it can pose a serious risk to both mother and baby – in severe cases, it can cause premature birth and low birth weight. For this reason, it’s important for pregnant women to get medical advice if they develop any symptoms of pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

Pneumonia is usually caused by a bacterial infection, but sometimes it can be a complication of a viral illness like the flu or COVID-19.

Symptoms may come on quite quickly (i.e. in a day or two) or may take longer to develop. There may be a period of mild illness, after which symptoms progress and become much worse.

The following symptoms are characteristic of pneumonia:

  • Cough, which may be dry or may be wet and produce phlegm that is yellow, green, or bloody
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Breathlessness even when you’re not moving
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Fever and chills
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chest pain that worsens when you breathe or cough

You might also vomit, feel very tired, and experience headaches and joint pain.

The NHS recommends contacting your GP or calling 111 if you’re experiencing the symptoms described above. More severe symptoms, such as struggling to breathe and coughing up blood, require emergency care – learn more here.

Watch the video below to discover the timelines of pneumonia symptoms:

 

How is pneumonia treated in pregnant women?

The treatment for pneumonia depends on the cause. If your doctor suspects a bacterial infection, they can prescribe antibiotics. Penicillin is often prescribed for pneumonia, and this is usually safe for pregnant women, however your treatment will have to be decided by your GP or hospital doctor.

If your doctor suspects a viral infection has caused your pneumonia, then they may prescribe some antiviral medication.

Otherwise, the treatment for mild pneumonia is to rest at home, drink plenty of fluids, and take over-the-counter painkillers. For pregnant women, paracetamol is best – ibuprofen normally isn’t recommended unless it’s been prescribed by your doctor.

When resting in bed, it can be helpful to turn over at least once an hour. You can also help clear out phlegm from your lungs by breathing deeply five to 10 times then coughing forcefully.

Is the pneumonia vaccine safe for pregnant women?

The NHS advises that the pneumonia vaccine should be safe for most pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, if you’re concerned about the risk, you may choose to wait until you’ve given birth.

If you’re concerned about pneumonia, it’s a good idea to discuss this topic with your GP or midwife, as they’ll be able to advise on whether vaccination is right for you.

Book your pneumonia jab

How to avoid pneumonia in pregnancy

Get the flu jab

The flu can cause a number of health complications, including pneumonia, which is why pregnant women are eligible for a free flu jab on the NHS. Studies have shown that the flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women, and that the protection it offers is passed onto their baby during the first few months of their life.

If you’re pregnant, you can get your free flu jab from your GP or midwife, or through a participating high street pharmacy such as LloydsPharmacy.

Practise good hygiene

Good hygiene can prevent the spread of germs and reduce your risk of catching or spreading illness. Try to get in the habit of washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Keep surfaces, toilets, door handles, phones, and keyboards clean by wiping them down with an antibacterial product.

If you do get sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw away used tissues straight away.

Quit smoking

All pregnant women are advised to quit smoking, as the chemicals in tobacco smoke can be very harmful to an unborn baby. Smoking is also a big risk factor for pneumonia as it can damage the lungs and increase your risk of infection.

Speak to a doctor about getting the pneumonia vaccine

If you’re particularly high-risk for pneumonia and its complications, you may benefit from getting the vaccine during your pregnancy. However, this is something to discuss with your GP or midwife to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.

Pregnant women who are considered high-risk for pneumonia should be eligible for a free vaccine on the NHS.

References

www.england.nhs.uk/pregnant-mums-its-not-too-late-to-protect-you-and-your-baby-from-flu
www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321241#complications
www.nhs.uk/conditions/pneumonia
www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/lungs-breathing/pneumonia
www.nhs.uk/conditions/antibiotics/considerations
www.nhs.uk/medicines/paracetamol-for-adults
www.nhs.uk/medicines/ibuprofen-for-adults
www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/pneumococcal-vaccination
www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/flu-jab
www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/stop-smoking