Pregnancy & Stomach Viruses

pregnant woman with thermometer in home
Pregnant woman with an ice pack on her head looking at a thermometer. (Image: JackF/iStock/Getty Images)

For many women, the early stages of pregnancy can feel similar to having a stomach virus, but some unlucky women actually get stomach viruses during pregnancy. Symptoms such as nausea and vomiting make it difficult for pregnant women to get adequate nutrition, and dehydration is dangerous to a growing fetus.

Identification

One of the problems associated with stomach viruses during pregnancy is in identification of the illness. Particularly during the first trimester, most women experience stomach or intestinal upset of one sort or another, note authors Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel in their book, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” Nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, and even diarrhea are not unusual symptoms of early pregnancy. Because these are also the typical symptoms of a stomach virus, it might be difficult to diagnose viruses early in pregnancy. Severe nausea and vomiting are worth a trip to the obstetrician, who can help a woman determine whether she’s ill.

Features

Stomach viruses are sometimes called “stomach flu,” but are not actually caused by the flu virus, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The medical term for stomach flu is viral gastroenteritis, which means an inflammation or infection of the gastrointestinal tract that is caused by a virus, as opposed to a bacterium. The symptoms, aside from nausea and vomiting, can include headache and fever. These symptoms help pregnant women distinguish viral infection from simple pregnancy-related symptoms.

Antibiotics

No medication can eradicate viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics work well on bacteria, but they’re ineffective against viruses. Instead, stomach viruses require treating the symptoms. Maintaining adequate hydration, for instance, is particularly important, because nausea and diarrhea can quickly deplete a pregnant woman’s fluid reserves. Dehydration, note Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz in their book, “You: Having A Baby,” is much more serious in pregnant women than in those who are not pregnant because the lack of fluid volume translates into a reduced blood volume, which compromises oxygen and nutrition delivery to the growing baby.

Other Medications

Pregnant women, of course, are restricted in the medications they can take because many pharmaceuticals can damage a growing baby. The CDC notes that no support medications are commonly prescribed for viral gastroenteritis. Some nonpharmaceutical remedies that help relieve the morning sickness of pregnancy might also help with nausea related to stomach viruses. Ginger, for instance, is a common home remedy for nausea. Roizen and Oz note that acetaminophen, or Tylenol, is generally considered safe during pregnancy and might help with headaches and muscle aches until the virus resolves.

Expert Insight

Unlike the flu, colds and seasonal viruses, stomach viruses are not airborne. Rather, notes the CDC, they come from contact with infected individuals and consumption of contaminated or spoiled food. Pregnant women should avoid contact with individuals who appear sick. Furthermore, while a pregnant woman’s enhanced sense of smell might help her avoid spoiled food, it’s important to follow food safety rules closely while pregnant. In particular, make certain that those handling food have washed their hands, and avoid consuming cold food that has been out of the refrigerator for more than a few hours.

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