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Are You at High Risk for Serious Illness from Flu?

Grandmother and grandson

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

Flu 101

Influenza, commonly called “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.

Yearly flu vaccination is the first and most important defense against influenza and its possible complications. Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu vaccines during the past 50 years, and there has been extensive research supporting the safety of seasonal flu vaccines. Everyone 6 months of age and older, including pregnant women and people with certain health conditions, should get a flu vaccine every season, with rare exception.

The Flu Can Be Serious

Each year, the flu leads to tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and millions of flu illnesses. 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 flu also can make long-term health problems worse, even if they are well-managed.

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

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.

Now is the Time To Get Vaccinated!

The perfect time to get your flu vaccine is before flu activity begins to increase. CDC recommends that you get your flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible. When you get your flu shot, your body starts to make antibodies that help protect you from flu. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the immune system to fully respond and for these antibodies to provide protection.

You need to get a flu shot every year. The body’s immune response from the vaccine fades over time, so you need a flu shot each year for optimal protection. Also, because flu viruses are constantly changing, the flu vaccine is updated each year to keep up with the changing flu viruses. With each new flu season, you need a new flu shot.

The flu vaccine can reduce flu illnesses, doctor visits, and missed work and school due to flu. Flu vaccination also has been shown to reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalizations, including 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. Additionally, a 2017 study in the journal of Pediatrics was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from influenza. 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.

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

Boy using inhaler

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

People 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]
  • 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)