7 Risk Factors That Make Flu More Severe

These flu complications can put your life at risk!

Virus-caused illnesses like COVID-19, monkeypox, and polio are known for seriously impacting the human body, but health experts warn it’s just as important to protect against the regular seasonal flu, especially if you’re in a high-risk group for severe or deadly complications.

Moreover, according to recent research, the flu season could be worse than usual this year, based on trends in the Southern Hemisphere. Experts explain that they look at what happens in the Southern Hemisphere because its winter begins when it’s summer in America, and this year, Australia had a very substantial influenza season.

While there isn’t always a 1-to-1 correlation, scientists are concerned that we could see more flu complications this year compared to 2022. And while anyone can have a severe bout of flu, certain groups are more likely to experience serious complications, ranging from dehydration and pneumonia to heart failure and death.

We’ve rounded up seven factors that put you at risk for flu complications and what you can do—apart from getting that all-important flu shot—to eliminate the flu’s worst effects.

myth, hands
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1. You’re 65 or older

Older adults are the group most affected by the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 70 and 85% of flu-related deaths and up to 70% of flu-related hospitalizations occur among seniors 65 and older.

Moreover, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases points out that about 50% of adults age 65 and older also have a second risk factor that makes them susceptible to flu complications.

The bad news is that even healthy older adults are at risk because their immune system simply isn’t as robust as that of a 25-year-old adult. In addition, typical flu signs aren’t always noticeable in older adults, causing a delay in diagnosis and treatment.

Doctors say that the most important symptom that may not show up in older people is fever. They can feel weak, develop a cough, and may even get confused, but they don’t experience fever, so family members don’t think it’s the flu.

2. You have diabetes

Diabetes is another condition that can increase the risk of flu complications. Since it weakens the immune system, it becomes more difficult for the body to fight off disease.

Influenza can also make it harder to control your blood glucose levels. They may go up in response to the infection, or they may go down if you don’t feel like eating while you’re sick. At the same time, your symptoms can make it hard for you to identify the signs of high or low blood sugar.

According to experts, it’s very common for diabetics who catch the flu to become dehydrated or have issues with their kidneys. Scientists also point out that diabetics are six times as likely as other people to be hospitalized because of flu complications and three times as likely to die.

The good news is that getting a glu vaccine slashes your risk of hospitalization by up to 79%, studies show.

By the way, if you’ve run out of ideas for what to cook, here’s a recipe book where you can find some inspiration.

Heart Disease, flu complications
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3. You have heart disease or a history of stroke

Health experts in recent years have found a concerning link between heart and flu complications. According to a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of 8 older patients hospitalized with flu experienced a serious cardiac event (and the study included a large group of patients—80,000 overall).

Another study found that you’re six times more likely to experience a heart attack during the week after catching the flu than at other times. In both studies, a history of cardiovascular disease and stroke boosted the odds of a sudden heart complication. Doctors think the flu causes an inflammatory response in your body, which can lead to dangerous clotting in your blood vessels.

This being said, if you have heart issues or a history of stroke, it’s important to reduce your risk of flu complications—in this case, to get the flu shot and avoid close contact with people who are sick.

4. You have asthma or another lung disease

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, the influenza virus can cause your airways to swell and get filled with mucus, making it more difficult to breathe. If you have asthma, even if it’s controlled, you’re more likely to experience flu complications, which can in turn trigger asthma attacks.

According to experts, adults with both asthma and COPD are at higher risk of developing pneumonia or other respiratory infections as a result of the influenza virus. You can end up hospitalized or with serious and permanent damage to your lungs.

Getting the flu shot can really help. It’s linked with a 38% reduction in influenza-related hospitalizations among people with COPD, according to a recent study.

Read on to discover other factors that can lead to flu complications!

5. You’ve had cancer

Many cancer treatments impair the immune system, so it may not be surprising that cancer patients are three to five times more likely to have flu complications and be hospitalized because of that.

But studies show they also face a higher risk if they’ve had cancer in the past, especially lymphoma or leukemia. Moreover, some types of chemotherapy suppress the immune system for the long term, making these people more vulnerable to a severe case of the flu. This being said, it’s important to protect against the virus.

If you’re undergoing cancer treatment now, the American Cancer Society advises talking to your oncologist about the best time to get the flu vaccine—but do get it. In a 2019 study that looked at data on over 26,000 cancer patients, those who got the shot were considerably less likely to catch the flu and to be hospitalized from the virus.

flu complications
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6. You have a weak immune system or a chronic condition

In addition to things like lung and heart disease, many other conditions boost your chance of experiencing flu complications. Those include metabolic disorders, neurological conditions, blood disorders, liver disease, and kidney disease.

Some chronic diseases leave you vulnerable because they impair your immune system or require you to take medicine that does. According to health experts, many older adults today take immunosuppressants for conditions such as cirrhosis or rheumatoid arthritis. There’s also the case of people living with transplants—kidney, heart, and bone marrow—who take those kinds of medications.

Moreover, immunocompromised patients may not experience fever with the flu, so it’s paramount to pay attention to even mild symptoms. According to the CDC, these people are at especially great risk for a secondary infection like pneumonia.

7. You have obesity

People with a body mass index (also known as BMI) higher than 40 are at increased risk of flu complications, experts say, even adults with obesity who have no other health problems.

While it’s unclear exactly why obesity is a risk factor, some scientists say it may be because the flu shot is less effective for people with excess weight. They explain that obesity itself tends to suppress the immune response, and there’s also the fact that the extra weight also makes it harder to take the deep breaths necessary to aerate your lungs.

Research shows people with obesity also carry the influenza virus for longer, which means they’re more likely to spread it to others.

If you liked our article on flu complications, you may also want to read 8 Things to Eat and Drink Before and After You Had the Flu Shot.

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