Breastfeeding While Sick: Everything You Need to Know

If you are reading this article, odds are you are not feeling your best—or anywhere near it—at the moment.  Being a mom is exhausting, being a breastfeeding mom is even more exhausting, and being a sick breastfeeding mom wins the award for most exhausted mother.  In your current state, you may be wondering if it’s ok to continue breastfeeding while sick.  The answer is a resounding YES.  Continuing to breastfeed while sick will help protect your baby from contracting your funk, and/or will help baby get over your shared illness quickly.  Your milk will not transmit your infection to your baby.  Read on for more tips and tidbits on breastfeeding while sick.

Does breast milk contain antibodies?

Before we get into helpful things to aid you when breastfeeding while sick, let’s address how it will impact your baby.  It has long been known through extensive scientific research that breast milk contains antibodies.  Antibodies are proteins your body produces which bind to and neutralize foreign invaders (i.e. viruses).  These antibodies are one of the many beneficial things that are passed to your baby through your breast milk.

Keep in mind that your baby will produce antibodies on his/her own when they are exposed to germs, but their immune systems are still juvenile.  Having the benefit of mom passing antibodies to them encourages their immune system to replicate the antibodies (and not have to build them from scratch!).  This, in turn, allows them to recognize and fight off a virus quicker than if they did not receive antibodies through breast milk.

So, definitely keep breastfeeding while you are sick!

Related article: 10 Reasons for a Sudden Drop in Supply (and What To Do About It!)

Can I breastfeed if I have a fever?

Like we explained above, breastfeeding while sick (including when you have a fever or other symptoms) will help keep your baby healthy.  Breastfeeding while sick doesn’t guarantee that your baby will not get sick, too, but it will allow him/her to fight off the infection quicker.

If you do have a fever, take normal precautions:

  • Frequent hand washing
  • Cover your mouth and/or turning away from baby when coughing or sneezing
  • Try not to touch your face
  • Disinfect frequently
  • Avoid people and going out so you don’t spread your germs and so you don’t contract something else while your immune system is weakened

Related article: Baby Refusing Bottle? Try This.

Can I breastfeed if I have a food poisoning?

Yes, and please do for the reasons mentioned above.  Try as much as you can to increase your own fluid intake (if you can keep it down) while also increasing the frequency in which you are breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding is wonderful re-hydration for your baby.  You will be miserable, no doubt about it.  But, it should pass quickly (and violently!).

Can I take cough or cold medicine while breastfeeding?

It depends.  The real issue with most cough and cold medications is not that they will necessarily transfer to your baby, but that they could dry up your milk supply.  Since these medications by their nature are used to dry up access fluid (i.e. snot, mucus, etc.), they may dry up your milk, too. 

The best course of action will be to call your OBGYN and ask for their advice.  They should have a list of approved medications you can use while breastfeeding.  If that’s not an option or you need an answer stat, check the LactMed database run by the US federal government’s National Institute of Health (NIH).  It’s also available for download as an app.  LactMed is a large database of drugs and other chemicals, and includes information on how much these substances may be transmitted to your baby and any possible adverse effects on nursing.

In order to use LactMed, you will need to look up the active ingredient(s) in a medication.  For example, if you want to know if you can use Sudafed while breastfeeding, you will need to look up its ingredients.  The active ingredient in Sudafed is pseudoephedrine.  If you look up pseudoephedrine on LactMed, you can see that “a single dose….decreases milk production acutely and repeated used seems to interfere with lactation.”  This is an indication that breastfeeding moms should avoid pseudoephedrine and medications that contain it (i.e. Sudafed).  However, if you look up the ingredients for Sudafed PE, you will see the main ingredient is phenylephrine.  If you look up phenylephrine on LactMed, you will see that “oral administration might decrease milk production.”  This is very different wording than for pseudoephedrine.  This tells us that phenylephrine while breastfeeding (i.e. Sudafed PE) is the better choice for lactating moms.  But, of course, bear in mind it may impact your milk supply so monitor it closely.

Another resource you may want to consider when breastfeeding while sick is the Infant Risk Center.  The Infant Risk Center is run by Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.  You can call them during normal business hours and discuss medication or vaccine safety while breastfeeding.

If you do decide to take cough or cold medication while sick, increase the amounts of liquid you are consuming.  In addition to water, try adding in Gatorade or another hydrating drink in order to keep your body extra hydrated.  This will lessen the chance that your milk supply will be adversely impacted permanently.

One more tip is that you can potentially ask the pharmacist at your local drug store.  Our moms have had mixed results with how knowledgeable a pharmacist is on the impacts of medications on milk supply.  In most instances, pharmacists will look up if a medication will be transmitted to your infant, but they won’t be able to answer how it impact your breast milk supply—so proceed with caution and do your own research.

Related article: The Best 5 Formulas for Supplementing While Breastfeeding

What are safe cold medications while breastfeeding?

If you don’t have time to go through the above steps with LactMed or Infant Risk, take a quick glance at this list of medications provided by the Mayo Clinic as medications considered safe when breastfeeding while sick:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
  • Naproxen – short term use only
  • Loratadine (Claritin, Alavert)
  • Fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy)
  • Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Zyrtec D)
  • Fluconazole (Diflucan)
  • Miconazole (Monistat 3) – minimal amount
  • Clotrimazole (Lotrimin) – minimal amount
  • Famotidine (Pepcid)
  • Docusate sodium (Colace)

If you do take any of the above medications, watch for any changes or reactions to your baby.  If anything seems amiss with his/her eating, sleeping, fussiness, or skin, contact your pediatrician immediately.

Related article: Supplementing While Breastfeeding: Advice from Experienced Moms

What natural remedies are safe when breastfeeding?

Most natural cold remedies are generally regarded as safe for breastfeeding when sick, both for your baby and your milk supply.  These include things like:

  • Rest (duh!)
  • Vitamin C supplements
  • Zinc Gluconate supplements (nasal gel preferred, don’t exceed 25-50 mgs per day)
  • Raw garlic
  • Neti pots
  • Essential oils
  • Hot tea or water with honey
  • Humidifier
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Most homeopathy

Is menthol safe while breastfeeding?

Large amounts of menthol is known to decrease breast milk supply, so avoid cough drops containing menthol if possible.  Additionally, while rubs containing menthol or camphor, such as Vicks or other medicated chest rubs, won’t necessarily impact your breast milk supply, they could impact and interfere with your baby’s breathing.  Because of this, try to avoid using Vicks while breastfeeding if possible.

Related article: How to Get a Free Breast Pump Through Insurance

Can I take allergy medicine while breastfeeding?

If you are suffering from allergies while breastfeeding, you may be wondering what medications (if any) are safe.  As we outlined above for cough or cold medicines, checking LactMed will be your best course of action.  Always make sure you look at the active ingredients when trying to determine what (if any) allergy medication is best for breastfeeding.

There isn’t a large amount of research surrounding allergy medications while breastfeeding.  Most of the reports or information you get from other moms will be anecdotal.  This means that one allergy medication may impact one mom’s breast milk supply more than another. 

Most second-generation antihistamines are considered safe for breastfeeding while sick with allergies:

  • Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • Fexofenadine (Allegra)
  • Loratidine (Claritin)
  • Fluticasone (Flonase)
  • Triamcinolone acetonide (Nasacort)
  • Ketofifen (Zatador)

Avoid any antihistamines that contain pseudoephedrine (i.e. Claritin-D, Allegra-D) as you will in all likelihood see a substantial decrease in your breast milk supply.  First generation antihistamines such as Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton are considered compatible with breastfeeding, but many of our own moms steer clear of them.  This is due to decreases in breast milk supply and the drowsiness accompanied with these medications.  Being sick + taking care of a baby + medication induced drowsiness is not a safe situation to put you and your baby in.

If you do take any of the medications listed in this article or even a medication not listed and you experience a drop in milk supply, don’t panic.  Immediately stop taking the medication, increase nursing frequency, and take a look at our article on How to Increase Breast Milk Supply (Fast!).

Feel better, mama!

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