Flu & People with Disabilities

Happy multiethnic family. Smiling little girl with disability in wheelchair at home

Seasonal influenza (flu) is particularly dangerous for people with certain types of disabilities—especially those who may have trouble with muscle function, lung function, or difficulty coughing, swallowing, or clearing fluids from their airways. People with these types of disabilities are at higher risk for developing flu-related complications that could require hospitalization. People with disabilities, especially those who have limited mobility, may also be at risk of getting flu because they are unable to avoid contact with others who may be infected, such as caretakers and family members. Additionally, some people with disabilities may have trouble understanding or practicing prevention measures for infections like flu, such as handwashing or avoiding contact with people who are sick, and may be unable to communicate or to be monitored closely enough to know if they are sick or have symptoms of illness.

The term “disability” refers to a reduced capacity to move parts of the body (mobility limitation) or to think, understand, remember, or reason (cognitive limitation). Disability also includes people with conditions that affect how their brains and nerves function (neurological and neuro-developmental conditions), and people with intellectual disability (the decreased ability to think, learn, and reason). “Disability” also includes some people with severe forms of other long-term health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.

A Flu Vaccine is the Best Protection Against Flu

For people with disabilities, getting a flu vaccine (flu shot or nasal spray flu vaccine) is the most important action they can take to prevent flu and its potentially serious complications. Additionally, caregivers and family members of people with disabilities can help protect their loved ones and themselves by getting a flu vaccine as well.

Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or health department if they are following CDC’s pandemic vaccination  guidance. Any vaccination location following CDC guidance should be a safe place for you to get a flu vaccine. For information on where to get a flu vaccine, please follow this linkexternal icon.

Types of Flu Vaccines for People with Disabilities

There are several influenza vaccine options and your health care provider can recommend one that is appropriate for you.  People with certain medical conditions or disabilities, such as those with weakened immune systems or cochlear implants, should not receive the nasal spray flu vaccine. Visit this page for more information.

Information about different types of flu vaccines can be found here.

Other Preventive Actions

In addition to getting a flu vaccine, people with disabilities should take the same everyday preventive actions CDC recommends for everyone, including avoiding people who are sick, covering coughs, and washing hands often.

Symptoms and Treatment

If you have a disability that puts you at higher risk of developing serious flu complications and you get sick with flu symptoms, you should call your health care provider right away. There are antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness and prevent serious flu complications. CDC recommends prompt treatment for people who have influenza infection or suspected influenza infection and who are at higher risk of serious flu complications, which includes many people with disabilities.

Symptoms:
Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea. Some people with the flu may have respiratory symptoms but not a fever.

Treatment:

  • Treatment for flu should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best when started early (within 48 hours after symptoms onset).
  • To get an antiviral drug, a health care provider needs to write a prescription.
  • Antiviral drugs can make your flu illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious health problems that can result from flu illness. Antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia. For people at higher risk of serious flu complications, treatment with antiviral drugs can mean the difference between milder or more serious illness possibly resulting in a hospital stay.
  • There are four FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC this season that can be used to treat flu. To learn more, visit here.
Emergency Warning Signs of Flu

People experiencing these warning signs should obtain medical care right away.

In children

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
  • Ribs pulling in with each breath
  • Chest pain
  • Severe muscle pain (child refuses to walk)
  • Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth, no tears when crying)
  • Not alert or interacting when awake
  • Seizures
  • Fever above 104°F
  • In children less than 12 weeks, any fever
  • Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

In adults

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Persistent dizziness, confusion, inability to arouse
  • Seizures
  • Not urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness or unsteadiness
  • Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

These lists are not all inclusive. Please consult your medical provider for any other symptom that is severe or concerning.

Most people who get flu will recover in as short as a few days to less than 2 weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) that can be life-threatening and result in death. Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu, while pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include infection of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu also can make certain chronic medical problems worse (for example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu).