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What groups are at high-risk for flu complications?

Symptoms | Complications | Risk factors | How to avoid flu complications

Whether you’re supervising your kids’ remote instruction or rescheduling vacation plans you made long ago, COVID-19 and its related life disruptions are likely part of your daily life now. But, unfortunately, that’s not the only viral infection that will be spreading soon. As fall approaches each year, so does the influenza virus—peaking between December and February, but lasting some years until May, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“The flu can really hit you hard, causing symptoms like fever and chills, sore throat, and body aches,” says Karen Berger, Pharm.D., a member of the SingleCare Medical Review Board. Symptoms can become worse if you are at high-risk for complications should you contract it.

“Serious and life-threatening complications may occur from the flu,” Dr. Berger explains. “Older adults, pregnant women, and patients with other medical conditions are at an even higher risk for these complications.”

Common flu symptoms

How do you know if you’re suffering from the flu? Common symptoms often include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea in some people, though this is more common in children than adults.
  • High fever or feeling feverish in some people
  • Runny or stuffy nose

When you’re feeling miserable, it’s natural to feel concerned—or even worried that you’ve caught COVID-19. It can be hard to know if your symptoms can be treated at home or if you should visit a healthcare provider. If you think you may have been exposed to coronavirus, call your physician for advice, but many times the treatment for the symptoms above is to stay home until they pass.

RELATED: Coronavirus vs. the flu vs. a common cold

If you find you’re suffering from the symptoms below, you seek medical attention immediately or go to an emergency room:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Severe neck stiffness
  • Loss of consciousness 

These could be signs of another illness, or a life-threatening complication from the flu.

Possible flu complications

Though most people who get the flu recover in about two weeks, others suffer complications, some of which can be deadly. They include:

  • Sinusitis and ear infections
  • Pneumonia or other lung disease
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues
  • Respiratory and kidney failure
  • Sepsis

The most common flu-related complications are bacterial pneumonia, and ear and sinus infections in young children. Symptoms of pneumonia include serious chest congestion or pain, trouble breathing, a 102 degree fever or higher, and a cough that produces pus.

What’s more, if you have a chronic medical condition,  the flu can exacerbate them. Those with asthma may have more asthma attacks while sick with the flu, and those with chronic heart disease may find their health condition gets worse from the flu.

RELATED: Sinus infection treatments

High-risk groups for flu complications

There are several risk factors that make one more susceptible for flu complications. They include:

  • Age: All children less than 5 years of age are considered at high risk of complications, and the risk is higher in those younger than 2 years of age and highest if younger than 6 months of age. On the other end of the spectrum, adults 65 years old or older are also considered at increased risk of complications. 
  • Where you live or work: Those in dense living or working conditions, such as nursing homes or military barracks, are at increased risk of flu complications.
  • Having a weakened immune system: Everything from cancer treatments, anti-rejection drugs, long-term use of steroids, being the recipient of an organ transplant, and having blood cancer or HIV/AIDS can weaken your immune system and make it easier for you to fall ill with the flu and develop complications.
  • Having a chronic condition: If you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart disease, neurological or neurodevelopmental disease, an airway abnormality, and kidney, liver or blood disease, and contract the flu you are at higher risk of complications.
  • Using aspirin under age 19: People who are younger than 19 years of age and receiving long-term aspirin therapy are at risk of developing Reye’s syndrome if infected with seasonal influenza.
  • Pregnancy: Expectant mothers are more likely to have flu complications. This risk grows in the second and third trimesters. Post-partum, women are also more likely to develop complications if infected within two weeks of giving birth.
  • Obesity: Those with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more are at a higher risk of flu complications.

How to avoid flu complications

The good news is that there are ways to minimize your risk of getting the flu, which cuts down on potential for serious complications.

1. Number one is to get a flu vaccine.

“The best thing you can do is get your flu shot every year,” says Charles Parks Richardson, MD, the CEO of KRS Global Biotechnology, Inc. “Plan for September to October. Even if the flu shot doesn’t protect you 100%, if you are exposed to the flu virus, there’s a good chance that the symptoms will be less severe. Getting the flu shot is the absolute best way to prevent [the] flu and its complications, including hospitalizations and death.”

RELATED: Flu vaccination 101

2. You also want to stop the spread of germs. 

This includes handwashing, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth. If you are at high-risk, it’s also a good idea to regularly clean and disinfect often-used surfaces like your computer keyboard, phone, and faucets, handles and knobs.

3. Treat your symptoms and boost your immune system.

If you get sick with the flu, take antiviral medications if prescribed by your doctor. Antiviral drugs can shorten your illness or make it miler, lessening your chances of complications.

RELATED: Does Tamiflu work? 

There are ways to treat your symptoms to make your recovery more comfortable. Make sure you get plenty of rest and fluids. You can take over-the-counter medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce your fever or body aches, as well as cough suppressants and salt-water gargles to treat sore throats and cough.

Dr. Richardson suggests “supplementing vitamins year-round, but especially during flu season. Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and zinc as well as keeping hydrated are very beneficial.”