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Are You at High Risk for Serious Illness from Flu?

Grandmother and granddaughterSome 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 influenza antiviral medications is very important for those people.

The Flu Can Be Serious

Influenza, commonly called the "flu," is a contagious viral infection that mostly 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.

CDC estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, flu-associated deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

Pregnant woman

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. 

While the flu can make anyone sick, certain people are at higher risk for serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can lead to hospitalization or even death. These 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
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives [729 KB]
  • And people who have 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 long-term aspirin therapy
    • People who are morbidly obese (Body Mass Index, or BMI, of 40 or greater)
Young 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? If you haven’t, now’s the time. As long as flu is circulating and causing illness, getting a flu vaccine is still beneficial. Yearly vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting against flu and it is recommended that almost 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 and deaths. The flu shot—not the nasal spray—is recommended for people with chronic medical conditions. It takes about two weeks for the body to develop an immune response. Influenza activity is currently increasing in the United States, and is already high in some states, according to the latest report.

So far this season, influenza A (H3N2) viruses have been most common. Over half of H3N2 viruses analyzed this season are different from the H3N2 virus in this season’s flu vaccine.  This may reduce how well the vaccine protects against those H3N2 viruses. However, given that many different influenza viruses circulate and the vaccine protects against three or four different viruses, CDC continues to recommend flu vaccination as the best way to protect against the flu and reduce flu-related ER visits. Vaccination may still provide some protection against the circulating H3N2 viruses that are different from the H3N2 vaccine virus, lessening severe flu-associated outcomes like hospitalization and death.

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.

Flu-Related Complications Can Affect You

Millions of Americans are impacted by long-term health conditions, but many people aren't aware that they have one of 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 a high risk for flu complications because of their age or other factors.

Consider these facts:

  • During the 2013-2014 flu season, 37% 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 for 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.
  • During the 2013-2014 influenza season, 109 flu-related pediatric deaths were reported.
  • Among children 6 months and older, about 80-85% of flu-related pediatric deaths occur in children who have not received a flu vaccine. On average, nearly 90% of flu-related deaths in the United States occur in people 65 and older.

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 getting an annual flu vaccine another part of your health management routine—it's your best defense against the flu and it's 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 too. Pneumococcal vaccine can be given at any time during the year and may be given at the same time as the flu vaccine.

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.

Sick with Flu? Early Antiviral Treatment is Important

If you have a high risk condition and you get the flu, early treatment with flu antiviral medications is important. Antiviral drugs are prescription medications 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 medications 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 medications 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-like symptoms, check with your doctor promptly.