Flu & People with Disabilities

Seasonal influenza (flu) can be particularly dangerous for people with certain disabilities and medical conditions—including those who may have trouble with muscle function, lung function, or difficulty coughing, swallowing, or clearing fluids from their airways—that may increase their risk for developing flu-related complications that could require hospitalization. People with disabilities, such as individuals who have limited mobility, may also be at risk of getting flu because they are unable to reduce contact with others who may be infected, such as direct service providers, 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.

A disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person to complete daily activities and interact with the world around them. Up to 1 in 4 adults in the United States reports having a disability. There are different types of disabilities, such as cognition, hearing, mobility, vision, self-care, and independent living, which may affect a person’s thinking, movement, learning, communication, and mental health.

A Flu Vaccine is the Best Protection Against Flu

For people with disabilities, getting a flu vaccine is the most important action they can take to prevent flu and its potentially serious complications. Additionally, direct service providers, caregivers, and family members of people with disabilities can help protect their loved ones and themselves by getting a flu vaccine.

Flu vaccines are reviewed each year and updated as needed to protect against the four influenza viruses that research indicates will be the most common during the upcoming season. Also, protection from vaccination decreases over time, so annual vaccination is needed to ensure the best possible protection against flu. This season’s flu vaccines have been updated from last season’s vaccines. More information on why flu vaccines are updated annually is available at Vaccine Virus Selection.

Protection from flu vaccination sets in after about two weeks after getting vaccinated. In addition to reducing risk of flu, flu vaccination has been shown in several studies to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.

  • Flu vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of having a serious flu outcome like a stay in the hospital or even being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU).

CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a seasonal flu vaccine each year, ideally by the end of October.

Types of Flu Vaccines for People with Disabilities

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There are several flu 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 nasal spray page for more information.

More information about different types of flu vaccines is available.

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 virus infection or suspected influenza virus infection and who are at higher risk of serious flu complications, which includes many people with disabilities.

Signs and Symptoms:

Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than in adults. People may be infected with influenza virus and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.


  • Influenza antiviral drugs are medicines that fight against flu by keeping influenza viruses from making more viruses in your body.
  • 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.
  • Treatment with a flu antiviral drug should begin as soon as possible because these medications work best when started early (within 48 hours after symptoms start).
  • You need a prescription from a health care provider for a flu antiviral medication.
  • There are four FDA-approved flu antiviral drugs recommended by CDC this season that can be used to treat flu.
Emergency Warning Signs of Flu

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

In children

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish lips or face
  • 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 degrees Fahrenheit that is not controlled by fever-reducing medicine
  • In children younger 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 two 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 influenza virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation 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).