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Are You at High Risk for Serious Illness from Flu?

Grandmother holding grandsonSome people are at high risk for serious flu complications, including young children, older people, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions. Flu vaccination and the correct use of flu antiviral medicines are very important for those people.

The Flu Can Be Serious

Influenza, commonly called the "flu," is a contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system—your nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms of the flu can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea.

Doctor consulting with patient

If you are at high risk of serious flu complications and get sick with the flu, your doctor may recommend treatment with antiviral drugs.

Pregnant woman outside

Getting a flu shot protects pregnant women from the flu. Studies have shown that getting a flu shot while you are pregnant can decrease your baby’s risk of getting the flu for up to 6 months after birth.

Sick with Flu? Early Antiviral Treatment is Important

If you have a high risk condition (see below) and you get the flu, early treatment with flu antiviral medications is important. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines that can be used to treat the flu. Rapid treatment with antiviral drugs in someone with a high risk condition can mean the difference between experiencing mild symptoms at home instead of suffering a very severe illness that could result in a hospital stay. Studies show that these drugs work best when they are started within 2 days of getting sick. However, starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high risk health condition or is very sick from the flu.

Antiviral medicines are not a substitute for vaccination. Annual flu vaccination is the first and best way to prevent the flu, but if you do get sick with the flu, antiviral medicines are a second line of defense to treat the flu. Antiviral medicines can be prescribed by a doctor to help make flu illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. Data also show that antiviral drugs may prevent serious flu complications. If you have a high risk medical condition and develop flu symptoms, check with your doctor promptly.

High Risk

While the flu can make anyone sick, certain people are at higher risk of serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can lead to hospitalization or even death. The groups considered to be at high risk include:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum)
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives [729 KB]
  • And people who have certain chronic medical conditions including :
    • Asthma
    • Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions [including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorders), stroke, intellectual disability (mental retardation), moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury].
    • Chronic lung disease (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and cystic fibrosis)
    • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease)
    • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
    • Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus)
    • Kidney disorders
    • Liver disorders
    • Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
    • Weakened immune system due to disease or medication (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or cancer, or those on chronic steroids)
    • People younger than 19 years of age who are receiving aspirin therapy
    • People with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater.

If You Haven't Gotten Vaccinated, Now's the Time!

Have you gotten your flu vaccine yet? Flu activity is low right now, but there are early signs that flu season is coming. It takes two weeks after vaccination for protection to set in as the body is developing an immune response, so get vaccinated now. Yearly vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting against flu and it is recommended that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated each year. It's your best defense against influenza – and its possible complications. The flu vaccine is safe, and it can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, missed work due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations. The flu shot—not the nasal spray—is recommended for people with chronic medical conditions. This season's vaccine has been updated to better match circulating viruses.

While doctor's offices and health departments continue to provide vaccinations, vaccine also is available at many pharmacies, workplaces, supermarkets and other retail and clinic locations in your area. Find a flu vaccination clinic near you with the vaccine finder.

Flu-Related Complications Can Affect You

Millions of Americans are impacted by chronic health conditions, but many people aren't aware that they have these conditions. For example, diabetes affects about 29 million Americans, but it is estimated that 1 in 4 people with the disease don't even know they have it. It's important to ask your doctor whether you have a health condition that makes you more vulnerable to complications from the flu. In addition to those with chronic health conditions, many others are at high risk for flu complications because of their age or other factors.

Consider these facts:

  • During the 2014-2015 flu season, about half of adults hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza had heart disease.
  • In pregnant women, changes in the immune system, heart and lungs make them prone to more severe illness from flu. In addition, a flu-infected pregnant woman also has an increased chance of miscarriage or preterm birth.
  • In the United States, each year an average of 20,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized because of flu complications.
  • As reported during the 2014-2015 flu season, 146 children died from flu-related causes.
  • Past data indicate that 80-85% of flu-related deaths in children 6 months and older, occurred in children who had not received a flu vaccine.

In recent years, it's estimated that between 80 and 90% of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and between 50 and 70%of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in that age group. If you are currently living with a chronic health condition like heart disease, diabetes or asthma, certain behaviors are probably part of your daily routine, like watching your diet or glucose levels, taking your prescribed medications or keeping your inhaler on-hand. Make an annual flu vaccination another part of your health management routine—it's your best defense against the flu and its related complications. Since the flu is contagious, it's also important that all of your close contacts are vaccinated.

If you are at high risk for flu complications, be sure to ask your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccination to prevent pneumonia, which is a possible complication of flu illness. Pneumococcal vaccine can be given at any time during the year and may be given at the same time as the flu vaccine.