Anyone can catch the flu. However, certain risk factors make it more likely that certain individuals will come down with the flu. These risk factors not only increase the likelihood that you will get the flu but may increase the likelihood of complications from the flu. Here are five risk factors that increase your chance of getting the flu.
Risk Factors for Catching the Flu
While the flu normally passes in about two weeks, it can still make you miserable, so you’ll want to do what you can to lower your risk. You may be more prone to catching the virus if you are in a high-risk group as defined by the following factors.
Skipping the Flu Shot
Those who do not or cannot get the flu shot are at greater risk for catching the flu. In addition, those who do not get the flu shot are more likely to spread it to others. The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months receive an annual flu shot (with rare exceptions).
Babies and children are more susceptible to all viruses as their immune systems haven’t fully matured. Seniors are also at greater risk for catching the flu, as the immune system weakens as you age.
Underlying Health Conditions
Underlying health conditions are a risk factor for catching the flu, due to a potentially weakened immune system. Those with the following underlying health conditions at increased risk of getting the flu.
- Chronic lung diseases, including COPD and cystic fibrosis
- Blood disorders such as sickle cell disease
- Endocrine disorders such as type 1 or type 2 diabetes
- Kidney and liver disorders
- Neurological conditions including a stroke, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injuries
- People who are extremely obese with a BMI of over 40
- Heart diseases such as coronary artery disease or congenital heart disease
Weakened Immune System
Individuals with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of catching the flu. This includes those who are on medications to suppress the immune system, due to having an autoimmune disorder, cancer, or other diseases and those who have received an organ transplant.
Wide Exposure to Others
Those in retirement communities, those who use public transportation, those who work with a lot of others, and children in school and daycare are at increased risk of catching the flu.
Complications of the Flu
Complications from the flu can range from moderate conditions, such as an ear infection or sinus infection to serious conditions that require hospitalization. Some flu-related complications can even lead to the risk of death. Other complications that you should be aware of if you are in a high-risk group include the following:
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart)
- Myositis (inflammation of muscle tissue)
- Multiple organ failure including lungs and kidneys
- Sepsis due to the flu triggering an extreme inflammatory response in the body’s immune system
- Worsening of chronic conditions such as asthma or heart disease
Another serious complication that can result from the flu is pneumonia. This happens when the virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract (your lungs). Pneumonia can cause extreme shortness of breath as the air sacs in the lungs fill up with fluid. This viral pneumonia can also lead to bacterial pneumonia if left untreated.
Signs of Flu Complications
It is important to know that you can develop life-threatening complications from the flu, even if you are not in a high-risk group. Knowing the signs of flu complications is essential in preserving your health. Some emergency warning signs that you should look out for include the following:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing
- Sudden dizziness
- Strange pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Severe vomiting
- Flu symptoms that go away and then come back stronger
In children, you should watch out for the following signs of the flu as well:
- Extreme lethargy
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Extreme irritability
- A rash that accompanies a fever
If you have an infant that exhibits any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention right away.
- Lack of tears when crying
- Fewer wet diapers than normal
- Difficulty in breathing
- Inability to eat normally
When to See a Doctor
If you suspect that you or a member of your family has the flu, call your health care provider first. They may recommend that you be tested for COVID-19, or schedule a telemedicine appointment instead of having you come to their office. If you are diagnosed with the flu, you may be prescribed one of two antiviral medications that are FDA approved to treat the flu. Both Tamiflu and Xofluza should be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Jen Hadley is a freelance writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, who writes extensively about the medical, legal, health care, and consumer products industries. Jen is a regular contributor to RxSaver.
Carmel Fitzgerald, NP
Carmel Fitzgerald, NP, is a seasoned adult health nurse practitioner in Boston, MA with over 30 years of experience. Most recently, she was recruited to serve as the coordinator for the new Boston Medical Center Lung Cancer Screening Program. Carmel is a contributing author to numerous medical research publications. She is a member of the Massachusetts Coalition of Nurse Practitioners, the American Heart Association and the Association for the Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence. She completed her BSN at the University of Massachusetts and MSN at Northeastern University both with honors.
The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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