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Are You at High Risk for Serious Illness from Flu?

Grandmother and 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. Flu symptoms can range from mild to severe and include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than adults.

	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 several months after birth.

High Risk

While the flu can make anyone sick, certain people are at high risk for serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can lead to hospitalization or even death. The flu can also make long-term health problems worse, even if they are well managed. Groups of people at high risk include the following:

  • 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 extreme obesity (body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater)

Follow these preventive steps to avoid getting sick with the flu:

	Boy using inhaler

Asthma is the most common chronic medical condition among children hospitalized with the flu.

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

Have you gotten your flu vaccine yet? Flu activity is still low right now, but activity often starts to increase during October. It takes two weeks after vaccination for the body to mount its protective 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 has been shown to reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, and missed work due to flu. Flu vaccination also has been shown to reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization, including those among children and older adults. A 2014 study showed that flu vaccine reduced children's risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012. Another study published in the summer of 2016 showed that people 50 years and older who got a flu vaccine reduced their risk of being hospitalized from flu by 57%. Flu vaccination is also an important preventive tool for people with chronic health conditions. Flu vaccination has been shown to reduce hospitalizations among people with diabetes and chronic lung disease. Vaccination also has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events and strokes.

CDC recommends annual influenza vaccination of all persons 6 months and older without contraindications. This season, CDC recommends that only appropriate injectable vaccines (flu shots) be used. The nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV) is not recommended for use during the 2016-2017 flu season because of concerns about effectiveness. No preferential recommendation is made for any one injectable influenza vaccine over another.
What else is new this season?

  • This season's vaccines have been updated to better match circulating viruses.
  • There is a new vaccine this season available for people 65 and older. In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed FLUAD™, which is a trivalent adjuvanted inactivated flu vaccine. An adjuvant is an ingredient added to a vaccine that helps create a stronger immune response to vaccination. This is the second vaccine designed and approved for use in people in this age group. Also available is the "high dose" flu vaccine called Fluzone® High Dose, which contains four-times the antigen as standard flu shots. Both of these vaccines are designed to improve the immune response to vaccination specifically in people 65 and older.
  • People with egg allergies no longer need to be observed for an allergic reaction for 30 minutes after receiving a flu vaccine. People with a history of severe allergic reaction to egg (i.e., any symptom other than hives) can now be vaccinated in a medical setting, under the supervision of a health care provider who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic conditions.

Also important, some children 6 months through 8 years of age will require two doses of flu vaccine for adequate protection from flu. Children in this age group who are getting vaccinated for the first time will need two doses of flu vaccine, spaced at least 28 days apart. Some children who have received flu vaccine previously may need two doses. Your child's doctor or other health care professional can tell you if your child needs two doses.
While doctor's offices and health departments continue to provide vaccinations, vaccine is also 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.

	Doctor consulting with patient

If you get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs are a treatment option and are recommended for people who are at high risk of serious complications.

Sick with Flu? Early Antiviral Treatment is Important

While the flu vaccine is the single best way to protect against the flu, there is still a possibility you could get sick with the flu even if you got vaccinated. If you get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs are a treatment option and are recommended for people who are at high risk of serious complications. Check with your doctor promptly if you are at high risk of serious flu complications (see above) and you get flu symptoms. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines that can be used to treat the flu, but they work best the sooner you start them. Rapid treatment can mean the difference between experiencing mild symptoms at home instead of suffering a very severe illness that could result in a hospital stay.

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.

Getting an annual flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect yourself and your family from the flu. The more people who get vaccinated, the more people will be protected from flu, including older people, very young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions who are more vulnerable to serious flu complications. For a full list of high-risk conditions, please visit People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications.