Flu Risk Factors
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Flu Risk Factors and Complications

Who’s at high risk for the flu?

Key points

  1. People at higher risk for the flu include children aged 5 and younger, older adults, and pregnant women.
  2. In high-risk people, complications from the flu can result in major illnesses or life-threatening issues.
  3. You can prevent flu complications by staying up to date with your yearly vaccinations.

Influenza, or the flu, is an upper respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. It’s often confused with the common cold. However, as a virus, the flu can potentially develop into secondary infections or other serious complications.

These complications can include:

  • pneumonia
  • dehydration
  • sinus problems
  • ear infections
  • myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart
  • encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain
  • inflammation of muscle tissues
  • multi-organ failure
  • death

Those who belong to the following groups are at greater risk for contracting the flu virus. They also have a higher risk of developing serious complications that can result in life-threatening situations.

Read more: Is it a cold or the flu? »

Children and infants

children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children aged 5 and younger are more likely to have health complications from the flu virus than most adults. This is because their immune system is not fully developed. Children with chronic health problems like organ disorders, diabetes, or asthma may have an even greater risk for developing serious flu-related complications.

Call for emergency care or take your child to your doctor immediately if they have:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistently high fevers
  • sweats or chills
  • a blue or grey skin color
  • intense or persistent vomiting
  • trouble drinking enough fluids
  • a decrease in appetite
  • symptoms that initially improve but then get worse
  • difficulty responding or interacting

You can protect your children by taking them to the doctor for a flu vaccination. If your children require two doses, they’ll need both for full protection from the flu. Talk to your doctor to find out which vaccination your children may need. According to the CDC, the nasal spray is not recommended for children younger than 2 years old.

If your child is 6 months old or younger, they’re too young for a flu vaccination. However, you can make sure the people your child comes in contact with, like family and caregivers, are vaccinated. If they’re vaccinated, there’s a much lower chance of your child getting the flu.

Older adults (above 65 years)

seniors

According to the CDC, people aged 65 and older are at a greater risk for serious complications from the flu. This is because the immune system typically weakens with age. Flu infection can also worsen long-term health problems like heart disease, lung disease, and asthma.

Call your doctor immediately if you have the flu and are experiencing:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistently high fevers
  • sweats or chills
  • no improvement in health after three or four days
  • symptoms that initially improve but then get worse

Aside from the traditional flu vaccination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a special high-dose vaccine for people aged 65 years and older called Fluzone High-Dose. This vaccine carries four times the regular dosage and provides a stronger immune response and antibody protection. The nasal spray vaccine isn’t for adults older than 49 years. Talk to your doctor for more details about which vaccine is best for you.

Pregnant women

pregnant women

Pregnant women (and women two weeks postpartum) are more susceptible to illnesses than women who are not pregnant. This is because their bodies go through changes that affect their immune system, heart, and lungs. Serious complications include premature labor in pregnant woman or birth defects in the unborn child.

Fever is a common symptom of the flu. If you’re pregnant and have both a fever and flu-like symptoms, call your doctor immediately. A fever can lead to harmful side effects in your unborn child.

Contact your doctor right away if you’re pregnant and have any of these symptoms:

  • decreased or no movement from your baby
  • high fever, sweats, and chills, especially if your symptoms aren’t responding to Tylenol (or store brand equivalents)
  • pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen
  • vertigo or sudden dizziness
  • confusion
  • violent or persistent vomiting
  • elevated blood pressure reading at home

Early treatment is the best protection. According to the CDC, the flu shot protects both mother and child (up to six months after birth) and is perfectly safe for both. Avoid the nasal spray form of the vaccine in children younger than 2 years or if you’re pregnant because the vaccine is a live weakened flu virus. The nasal spray vaccination is safe for breastfeeding women.

People with weakened immune systems

Diagnosis

People with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of serious flu complications. This is true whether the weakness is caused by a condition or a treatment. A weakened immune system is less able to fight off flu infection. There is a greater risk for infections for people who have:

  • asthma
  • diabetes
  • brain or spinal conditions
  • lung disease
  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • blood disease
  • metabolic syndrome
  • a weakened immune system due to diseases (like HIV or AIDS) or medications (like regular use of cancer treatments)

People younger than 19 years old who have been receiving long-term aspirin therapy are also at increased risk for infections. If they’ve been taking aspirin daily (or other medication that contains salicylate), they also have a greater risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.

Reye’s syndrome is a rare disorder in which sudden brain and liver damage occurs with an unknown cause. However, it’s known to occur about a week after a viral infection when aspirin has been given. Getting your flu vaccination can help prevent this.

It’s important for people with weakened immune systems to get the flu shot. Talk to your doctor about which type of vaccination is best for you.

Environmental factors

Location

People who live or work in heavily populated places with close interpersonal contact are also at greater risk for contracting the flu virus. Examples of these kinds of places include:

  • hospitals
  • schools
  • nursing homes
  • childcare facilities
  • military barracks
  • college dormitories
  • office buildings

Wash your hands with soap and water or use antibacterial products to reduce this risk. Practice clean habits, especially if you belong to a risk group and live or work in these environments. 

If you’re planning to travel, the flu risk can vary depending on where and when you go. It’s recommended to get your vaccinations two weeks before travel, as it takes two weeks for your immunity to develop.

What to do if you’re high risk

Prevention

Take the time to get your yearly flu shot, especially if you’re around young children or older adults. Getting your vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, visits to the doctor or hospital, and missed work or school. It can also prevent the spread of the flu. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older, healthy or at-risk, get the vaccine. If you’re at high risk and you start showing any symptoms of the flu, see your doctor immediately.

There are many different kinds of vaccinations, from traditional shots to nasal spray. Depending on your condition and risk factors, your doctor may recommend a certain type of vaccination. According to the CDC, the nasal spray vaccine is not recommended for people with medical conditions, children under 2 years old, women who are pregnant, or adults over 50 years old.

Other ways to prevent getting the flu include:

  • practicing clean habits like washing your hands with soap and water
  • wiping down surfaces and objects like furniture and toys with disinfectant
  • covering coughs and sneezes with tissues to minimize potential infection
  • not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • getting 8 hours of sleep every night and getting regular exercise to improve your immune health

Treating the flu within the first 48 hours after symptoms appear is the best window for effective treatment. In some cases, your doctor may want to prescribe antiviral medications. Antiviral drugs can shorten the duration of your illness and prevent serious flu complications from developing.

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