Understanding Flu Complications
For most people, getting the flu isn’t fun. The symptoms, such as a fever, runny nose, coughing, and aches and pains, come on suddenly and can leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks. Luckily, for many people, the flu is a mild illness that resolves on its own after about a week.
But some people can develop complications from the flu, which can lead to more serious illness and land them in the hospital. Knowing what potential complications from the flu and who is at risk can help you protect yourself and those you love from a dangerous case of influenza this season.
Who Is at Risk for Flu Complications?
Although anyone can develop complications from the flu and end up with a serious case, some groups of people are at higher risk than others. If you’re a member of any of the following groups, taking precautions against the flu, including getting your annual flu shot, is critical.
● Children under age 5: Millions of kids under the age of 5 end up in the hospital with complications due to the flu each year. Children under the age of 2 have the highest risk of developing complications.
● Adults over age 65: As people get older, their immune systems are often not as robust as they once were, which can make it harder to fight infections and make it more likely for a person to end up in the hospital with flu complications.
● Pregnant women: The body undergoes many changes during pregnancy, and some of those changes affect the immune system. Women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth should be particularly diligent about flu prevention because of the higher risk of complications. Getting sick with the flu during pregnancy can also affect the health of the fetus.
● People who are obese: People who are obese, often described as having a body mass index (BMI) over 40, have a greater risk of flu complications compared to people with a BMI within the healthy range.
● People who have chronic medical conditions: Ongoing health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes, can also make it harder for the body to fight infections, such as the flu. In some cases, the medications a person takes to manage a chronic condition can weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of complications.
What Are Flu Complications?
The complications that can develop as a result of the flu range from moderate to severe. Moderate complications can include bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections. More severe complications include inflammation of the heart or brain, organ failure, and pneumonia.
Pneumonia, which is inflammation or infection in the lungs, tends to be the most severe flu complication. When a person has pneumonia, it’s difficult for oxygen to get to the blood, which can affect the functioning of cells and other organs. A restricted flow of oxygen through the body can lead to death in some cases.
Some people need to be seen by a medical provider on an emergency basis due to complications from the flu. If a person is having trouble breathing, shortness of breath, or pain in the chest when breathing, they should be taken to an emergency department right away. Other emergency signs of the flu include:
● Dehydration (for example, a person doesn’t urinate for more than 8 hours).
● Fever over 104 degrees F (in children).
● Fever that goes away but comes back and becomes worse.
● Extreme weakness.
● Extreme muscle pain.
How to Protect Yourself From Complications from the Flu
If you’re a member of a high-risk group or if you have people in your family or close social circle who are in a high-risk group, the number one thing you can do to protect yourself and them from flu complications is to get a flu vaccine each year. The CDC recommends a flu shot to everyone over the age of six months, including pregnant women and people with certain health conditions. The only real exceptions to the CDC’s recommendations are people who have life-threatening allergies to any of the ingredients used in the vaccine.
Along with getting your flu shot, you can also reduce the risk of getting the flu and developing complications from the flu by washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, and reducing or avoiding contact with people who are sick.
- Flu Symptoms and Complications, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
- What is the Connection Between Influenza and Pneumonia?, American Lung Association, https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/what-is-the-connection
- People at High Risk for Flu Complications, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/index.htm
- Five Simple Steps to Protect Against Flu, WHO, https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/five-simple-steps-to-protect-against-flu
- Influenza, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719
- Who Should and Should NOT Get a Flu Vaccine, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/whoshouldvax.htm
Cox Media Group