Can having the flu during a pregnancy increase a child’s risk of autism?

November 15, 2012 4:49 PM by

Now that the colder weather is here, many people are gearing up for cold and flu season. As a pregnant woman, you're probably particularly concerned now that you have the health of your child to worry about, too. And new research has surfaced that tentatively suggests a link between a mother having the flu during a pregnancy and her child's risk of being diagnosed with autism.

Current statistics show that about one in every 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder. It's unknown what exactly puts children at risk for developing these conditions, but potential risk factors might be related to genes, health conditions, the child's first few years of life and factors that affected the mother's pregnancy.

Catching a flu or having a fever for more than one week during a pregnancy might be two of these factors. New research published in the journal Pediatrics looked at the rates of developmental disorders like autism among almost 97,000 children born in Denmark between 1997 and 2003. The mothers of these children responded to surveys detailing infections they may have had during pregnancy, including colds, sinus infections and urinary tract infections along with others. They also answered whether they had suffered from the flu or experienced a fever for more than seven days during their pregnancies.

Women who had a fever for over a week were found to be three times more likely to have a child with autism than women who didn't. Mothers who had the flu doubled their risk of having children diagnosed with autism before the age of 3, which is known as infantile autism. Researchers also found that there was a slightly increased risk of autism when women took certain antibiotics during a pregnancy.

While these findings indicate a potential link, it's important to note that there are several limitations that may have affected the outcomes. For one thing, the survey answers weren't verified by medical records, and the mothers who filled them out were basing their answers on memory. Also, the study wasn't designed to focus on the flu, so the results could have been by chance.

Nevertheless, it's still a good idea to get a flu shot this winter. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all pregnant women get flu shots, as symptoms and risks can be increased during a pregnancy.

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