Moms-to-be who get sick during pregnancy often worry about potential effects on the unborn baby. Acute bronchitis, or a chest cold, is a very common illness that often develops after a head cold. Most women who develop bronchitis during pregnancy recover in a few weeks without complications. However, if you’re pregnant and come down with bronchitis, it’s important to work closely with your healthcare provider to ensure a healthy outcome for you and your baby.
More than 90 percent of people with bronchitis have a viral infection of the airways in the lungs called the bronchi. The same viruses that cause head colds are usually to blame for acute bronchitis. Many people develop bronchitis after a head cold, as the viruses spread from the nose and throat to the upper airways of the lungs. The most prominent symptom with bronchitis is a nagging, wet cough. However, due to changes in the respiratory and immune systems during pregnancy, bronchitis during this time may cause more numerous symptoms than typically occur in adults who are not pregnant. In addition to cough, possible symptoms include:
-- sore throat
-- low fever
-- noisy breathing
-- chest tightness
-- mild shortness of breath
-- mild headache and body aches
Viral bronchitis is typically a mild illness that gradually goes away on its own within about 2 to 3 weeks in adults who are not pregnant. However, physical and immunological changes driven largely by high hormone levels can lead to a more prolonged course in pregnant women. You may feel under the weather for a longer period and your cough may persist a few weeks longer than is usually the case with bronchitis.
As long as you’re gradually improving under the care of a healthcare provider, you can be reasonably assured that your recovery is progressing. Since most bronchitis is due to a viral infection, antibiotics are not helpful -- unless your doctor diagnoses a bacterial infection. Bronchitis during pregnancy is treated symptomatically, meaning use of interventions that are intended to make you more comfortable while your body heals. Talk with your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter medications, herbs or supplements to be sure they are safe for you and your baby.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While nothing you do can guarantee that you won't get bronchitis during pregnancy, there are steps you can take to tip the scales in your favor. To the best of your ability, stay away from people who have a cold or cough. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water can reduce your risk of catching a head or chest cold. If you cannot wash your hands, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used to reduce the number of germs on your hands. It’s also very important to get your annual flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu shot for all pregnant women and notes that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women and their babies.
Warnings and Precautions
Most women who develop bronchitis during pregnancy recover without any complications in the mother or the baby. However, pregnant women with bronchitis have an increased risk of developing severe bronchitis or pneumonia, compared to other adults. Although these complications are not common, it is important to be carefully monitored by a medical professional if you have bronchitis.
Contact your healthcare provider right away if you develop a cough during pregnancy to determine next steps. Seek immediate medical care if you have a fever higher than 100.5 F, experience chest pain or have difficulty catching your breath. Contact your doctor immediately or go to the nearest hospital if you experience pains that could indicate premature labor, as severe respiratory infections increase the risk for preterm labor and delivery.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.