From painful headaches to body aches to lack of energy, coming down with influenza (AKA the flu) is no fun at all. But when it strikes some people, the virus can be more dangerous – even life-threatening. Find out who's at highest risk for an adverse flu reaction and learn when symptoms may warrant emergency care.
People most at risk
Because of their weaker immune systems, children under the age of five – and even more so under age two – are especially vulnerable to the flu. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, each year, more than 20,000 children younger than five are hospitalized for flu-related complications.
Due to changes in their immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy, pregnant women are at higher risk of severe flu. This sensitivity lasts for up to two weeks after giving birth. The flu can even cause problems with the pregnancy, like premature delivery.
Adults 65 and older
As people get older, their flu-fighting immune systems become frail. The CDC estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in seniors over 65.
Those with medical conditions
The flu weakens your body and can exacerbate an already existing health problem, which is why people with certain conditions may have a harder time coping with the virus. Plus, these conditions make people more susceptible to flu complications like pneumonia, and having the flu can make these other health problems worse. The best example is diabetes. Infections like the flu make it harder to control blood sugar. Conditions that may worsen from the virus include:
- Neurological conditions
- Chronic lung disease
- Heart disease
- Liver and kidney disorders
- Blood disorders
- Weakened immune systems due to disease or medications
- Severe obesity
If you begin to experience flu-like symptoms and have any of these medical conditions, talk to your doctor so you can take the proper precautions.
When emergency care may be necessary
A normal case of the flu usually comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from one to two weeks. People may have a fever or chills, cough, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and muscle aches.
For those who may be more susceptible to the virus, however, more serious complications may occur, such as pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, bronchitis and seizures.
So contact your doctor immediately if you or a loved one experiences any of these warning signs during a bout with the flu:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Chest or belly pain
- Sudden dizziness
- Symptoms that get better, then return with fever and worse cough
- Severe dehydration
In infants and children, watch for trouble breathing, a high fever with a rash, trouble urinating, lack of tears when crying or skin that is bluish in color.
Your best bet at prevention
The CDC recommends everyone six months and older receive a flu vaccination each year. Research shows that vaccination typically reduces flu risk by more than 50 percent. It also makes the illness less severe, and protects against these dangerous complications. And don't think it's ever too late – or too early – for a vaccine. While flu outbreaks usually peak between December and February, flu cases can occur as late as May and as early as October.