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What Are the Complications of Seasonal Flu, and Who’s at Higher Risk?

December 1–7, 2019 is National Influenza Vaccination Week. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, there is still time to take advantage of this important protection.

We see reminders every year of the importance of getting our flu shot. The flu is pretty miserable, and who wants that? Experts also tell us that the more people who get vaccinated, the less able the viruses are to spread throughout the population.

Flu shot reminders also warn that some people are at higher risk of dangerous complications from the flu. Who is at higher risk, and what are those complications we hear about?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says possible complications include:

  • Sinus and ear infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues
  • Organ failure
  • Sepsis

The flu may also worsen a person’s existing health conditions.

Groups who might be at higher risk include:

  • Adults 65 years and older
  • Children younger than two years old
  • Pregnant women and women up to two weeks after the end of pregnancy
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • People with certain health conditions:
    • Asthma
    • Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
    • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
    • Chronic lung disease (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and cystic fibrosis)
    • Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus)
    • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease)
    • Kidney disorders
    • Liver disorders
    • Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
    • Obesity (a body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
    • People younger than 19 years of age on long-term aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications.
    • People with a weakened immune system due to disease (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or some cancers such as leukemia) or medications (such as those receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer, or persons with chronic conditions requiring chronic corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune system).

To find out more about your personal flu risks or those of an older loved one, talk to your doctor. Ask for their recommendations for the flu vaccine. Doctors usually recommend that older adults receive a special type of the vaccine. This year, there have been spot shortages of that vaccine. If this is the case at your pharmacy, contact your doctor. You may be able to locate the 65+ shot elsewhere, or your doctor may tell you to go ahead and get the regular shot. Either way, the CDC warns not to delay—the forecast is that flu season 2019-2020 will be getting an early start.

People in high-risk categories should also report symptoms of the flu to their doctor right away. The doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs, which work best if taken promptly.

Visit the CDC website to find more information about specific high-risk groups (

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