The flu: Who needs to be especially careful?
Influenza can strike anyone, regardless of age or health. But certain people are more likely to get the flu – and to suffer more problems from it if they do. If you’re very young or very old, your risk of dying from the flu or its complications increases, too.
How worried should you be? The seasonal flu is most dangerous for:
Anyone over age 65
Your immune system weakens as you age. Older people also are more likely to have other medical problems that can make it harder to recover. Pneumonia – which can be fatal – is more likely to strike the frail elderly who get the flu, too.
Infants and children under age 5
Children under age 5 with seasonal flu are more likely to suffer complications such as ear infections. Babies and children under age 2 are at the greatest risk of the flu leading to a more severe respiratory illness. So are kids who have chronic medical conditions.
Being pregnant makes you more vulnerable to flu infection due to chemical changes that keep your body from rejecting the fetus. Symptoms can be worse, and you and your baby are more likely to have complications. Having a high fever during early pregnancy may also cause birth defects in the baby.
People with HIV/AIDS
People with HIV (the AIDS virus) or AIDS tend to have longer illnesses and a higher death rate than others when they get the flu. Their condition puts them at higher risk for lower respiratory tract infections and recurring pneumonia.
Those taking immunosuppressant drugs
You may need to take drugs that suppress your immune system, even though it raises flu risk. This may be the case if you’ve had an organ transplant or have rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease. Drugs and radiation used to treat cancer can weaken the immune system and lower resistance to the flu virus as well.
People of any age with a chronic medical condition
Having heart disease, diabetes or lung disease (including asthma) raises your risk of catching the flu. So do some neurological conditions, and blood, kidney and liver disorders.
Take these precautions
It’s not inevitable that you’ll get the flu if you are in a high-risk group. Getting an annual flu shot is the best way to help prevent it. Also, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can cut your chance of infection. This means taking all your medicines as directed, eating nourishing food, exercising and getting enough sleep. This will also improve your ability to fight the infection should you get sick.
Other ways to reduce your flu risk:
- Wash your hands often and thoroughly.
- Avoid people who are sick, as well as crowds and spaces with limited air flow.
- Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about taking a dietary supplement. Or ask about a meal plan to help boost your immunity.
- If you’re a new mother, breast-feed your baby instead of using formula.
- Wear a facemask or respirator to be extra careful.
If you’re in a high-risk group, call your doctor right away if you think you may have the flu. Your doctor may want to prescribe antiviral treatment, which works best when given within two days of infection.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. H1N1: What to do if you get flu-like symptoms. Accessed: 01/21/2010
- Weisberg SS. Influenza. Disease-a-Month. 2007;53(9):435-446. Accessed: 01/21/2010