Most women catch a cold at least once during pregnancy. Although the signs and symptoms can make you miserable, even a bad cold isn't a hazard to your baby. Colds tend to last longer during pregnancy because of changes in your immune system.

■ Prevention and self-care for colds

To keep from catching a cold, the best strategy is to eat well, get plenty of rest, exercise regularly and avoid close contact with anyone who has the sniffles or a sore throat. If you're around family members or co-workers with colds, wash your hands often. Cold germs are easily passed from one person to another.

If you do come down with a cold, take care of yourself using minimal medications. Many cold remedies that you may be accustomed to using —

including aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), decongestants, cough syrups, antihistamines, nasal sprays, herbal remedies such as echinacea and megadoses of vitamin C and zinc — aren't recommended during pregnancy. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) is a good choice for fever, headaches and body aches associated with a cold. If you're miserable with a cold, call your health care provider for advice regarding products that generate the least risk.

To treat your cold, consider these tips:

• Get plenty of rest. Being run down puts a strain on your body.

• Drink extra fluids. Fever, sneezes and a runny nose will cause your body to lose fluids that you and your baby need. In addition to helping your body fight the cold, drinking plenty of fluids can also keep your stuffy nose clearer. Choose citrus juices, water or broth.

• Help clear nasal congestion by using a humidifier in your bedroom at night or by putting a towel over your head and breathing the steam from a pan of boiling water removed from the stove. When you're lying down or sleeping, ease your breathing by keeping your head elevated on a couple of pillows. Nasal strips, which gently pull your nasal passages open, also may help.

• To soothe a sore throat, most health care providers think that topical anesthetic sore throat lozenges are OK. You can also try sucking on ice chips, drinking warm liquids or gargling with very warm salt water (V4 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water).

• Continue eating well. If you don't have an appetite and can't tolerate large meals, eat smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day. Choose foods that appeal to you. Vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables and soup are good choices when you have a cold.

When to seek medical help for colds Call your health care provider if:

• Your fever reaches 102 F

• You're coughing up greenish or yellowish mucus

• You have a cough with chest pain or wheezing

• Your signs and symptoms are severe enough to keep you from eating or sleeping

• Your sinuses are throbbing or you have facial pain or painful teeth

• Your signs and symptoms persist for more than a few days with no signs of improvement

It may be possible to treat your signs and symptoms with a cold medication. Your health care provider will recommend one that's considered safe during pregnancy. Although cold medicines can relieve signs and symptoms, they don't affect the severity and duration of a cold. If you have a secondary infection, such as bronchitis or a sinus infection, your health care provider may prescribe an antibiotic.

Don't put off calling the health care provider or refuse to take a prescribed medication because you don't want to take any drug during pregnancy. Many cold treatments aren't harmful for your baby — but your health care provider should make the decision.

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