Virus. Stop the spread. High risk. Vaccine. More than ever, these words are in the news and all over your social media pages. COVID-19 is still a pressing subject, but it’s important to tune into the virus that will be upon us before we know it: influenza.
Influenza, or flu, is a seasonal virus that spreads mainly between November and March in the United States, with peak activity generally between December and February. Some seasons have more activity than others, and some flu vaccines are more effective than others. With such a wide window to get sick and so much variability in activity, how should you prepare? The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to understand the risks and take steps to lower your risk of getting sick.
What does it mean to be at high risk?
Generally when you hear about risk when discussing influenza, it isn’t just referring to risk of getting the flu — it’s also meaning the risk of complications from getting the flu. If someone is at high risk, it is especially important to lower their chances of encountering the virus at all.
A young adult with a healthy immune system is generally at a low risk of having complications if they contract the flu. There may be fever, aches, chills, and more — but these symptoms don’t often put an otherwise healthy person into the hospital and usually clear up within a week or two.
However, those with high risk may deal with more serious complications that last, including:
Pneumonia is often the worst complication to face as it can be fatal to many. ¹ Influenza can also cause chronic medical conditions to get worse.
Who is at risk?
Everyone is at risk. Even if you are in excellent health, you can still get the flu — and any virus has the potential to cause lasting effects. Some groups, however, are at higher risk than others.
Adults 65 Years or Older
As a person ages, their immune system changes and is often less effective at fighting off new diseases and infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that adults 65 and older account for 50 to 70% of flu-related hospitalizations and 70 to 85% of flu-related deaths. ²
Why are these numbers so high? Often because of the complications. For those 65 or older, flu can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, sometimes weeks after recovering from the flu. Older adults are also more likely to have these complications be lasting. In short, this age group is six times more likely to die because of the flu or from flu-related complications. ³
Chronic Health Conditions
Chronic health conditions affect a person’s immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off a new infection such as the flu. It also means the immune system has a harder time preventing serious complications. Some of these chronic conditions include: ²
Chronic lung disease
Chronic kidney disease
A large portion of adults in the United States fall into this high-risk category when it comes to flu complications. As many as 31% of American adults 50-64 years live with a chronic condition; for those 65 and older, that percentage goes up to 47%. ⁴
Pregnancy doesn’t just affect a woman’s uterus — it affects her whole body. These changes can put her at a higher risk of getting sick from the flu. And the risk doesn’t stop with the woman; the developing baby can be at risk if the mom-to-be gets sick. Fever, a usual symptom of the flu, can be dangerous to a fetus. ²
Compared to older adults’ immune systems that are weakening, young children are on the opposite end — their systems are still growing but not yet mature. Children under 5 years of age are at higher risk of complications from the flu, and the flu can be especially deadly for those less than 6 months old. ²
Certain racial and ethnic minority groups
Certain minority groups have a higher risk of complications from the flu leading to hospitalization, including:
Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native
Hispanic or Latino
Recent data compiled by the CDC suggests that socioeconomic reasons and vaccination rates may be critical factors in this. People living in poverty are less likely to get vaccinated and are more likely to be at higher risk. Education and outreach tailored to minority groups has also been lacking. ⁵
What can I do to lower my risk?
Regardless of age group or risk level, the best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get vaccinated every year. The flu vaccine is recommended by the CDC for almost anyone 6 months and older. Pregnant women can pass antibodies along to the baby after birth when the infant is too young to be vaccinated himself. There are a few health concerns that would prevent a person from getting vaccinated; in those cases, it is even more important for those around those individuals to get a flu shot.
There are some factors to consider when getting the vaccine. If you are 65 years or older, for instance, the high dose vaccine is recommended ahead of a regular flu shot. The high dose is meant to generate higher counts of antibodies by causing a stronger immune response. For pregnant women and those living with chronic conditions, the CDC recommends avoiding LAIV, the nasal spray vaccine due to side effects of that vaccine. ²
It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor about any concerns you have and which vaccine is best for you.
Don’t stop at the flu vaccine.
Getting the flu shot isn’t the only step to take, it’s just the first one. You can further lower your risk of flu-related complications by staying up to date with your pneumococcal vaccines. This is especially important for older adults and those living with chronic conditions.
Pneumococcal vaccines offer protection against several diseases; the most serious in relation to flu is the prevention of pneumonia, which can be deadly. ²
Practice healthy habits.
Similar to what we’ve all been doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you can make an effort in your day-to-day life to stop the spread of the flu. Some of these methods include: ⁶
Keep your distance from people who are sick
Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
Wash your hands.
Avoid touching your face.
Clean often-used objects and surfaces.
Stay home if you’re sick
If you have a chronic condition, it’s also important to monitor your condition and watch for any changes that could indicate a new illness. ⁴